| Luke 2:1-20
||Mon, December 24, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Watchman, tell us of the night,
what its signs of promise are.
Traveller, o’er yon mountain’s height,
see that glory shining star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveller, yes; it brings the day,
promised day of Israel.
Watchman, tell us of the night;
higher yet that star ascends.
Traveller, wonderness and light,
peace and light its course portends.
Watchman, with its beams alone
mark the spot that gave them birth.
Traveller, ages are its own;
see it shines all o’er the earth.
Watchman, tell us of the night,
as the morning seems to dawn.
Traveller, darkness takes its flight,
doubt and worry are withdrawn.
Watchman, let your travels cease;
go you to your quiet home.
Traveller, lo, the Prince of Peace,
and the Son of God is come!”
-Sir John Bowring (1792-1872)
The story of the arrival of the Saviour in our midst is the story of travelling peasants who are not welcome because there is no room. It is a story that reminds us to keep watch. Tonight we turn the page on our calendar. Celebrating the birth of Jesus, we begin the great celebration of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. But before we turn the page on Advent let us take one more look at the picture of pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph, looking for somewhere to stay here, in Vancouver. And don’t forget the text which has been staring us in the face through these Advent days: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42). Perhaps next year we will add to our tradition of ‘Las Posadas’ processions. Again this year we travelled the campus streets with Mary and Joseph tonight. But in Spanish cultures Mary and Joseph walk the streets for nine nights in a row before finally finding room ... and then only in a stable. These Advent days have the power to teach us that Christ’s arrival in our life together is not limited to December 25th. He comes seeking room at the most inconvenient of times ... and unexpected of births. A few days ago I heard Arla say: “We live in Advent all the time, don’t we?”. She means we are always keeping watch, wondering if this stranger - or that crisis - that asks for room in our full lives might just be the Christ who comes to turn out lives upside down ... or, perhaps, right side up!
As ‘The Singers’ were singing “Watchman, tell us of the Night” just now I was wondering just who keeps watch ... and who is travelling, seeking news of the night. Of course, it is the shepherds who are “keeping watch over their flock by night”. The shepherds watch over their sheep. This is such poetic speech that it is possible that we might not realize that it is about a lot more than some ragged shepherds and their lambs on a hillside. In the ancient world of the Bible, sheep and shepherds are everywhere. And they quickly become a metaphor for people. To talk about “shepherds and their flocks” in the Bible is to talk about Kings and Princes and Governors and Prime Ministers. They are the shepherds who keep watch over their flock by night. They watch out for danger ... and keep the people safe. Of course, that is why one of the names for a minister is ‘pastor’. It means ‘shepherd’ of the flock ... one who keeps watch by night for danger. But it is not just prime ministers and pastors who keep watch over their flock by night. Parents know all about keeping watch by night ... from infancy to adolescent years, being a parent is all about trying to keep the young safe. Grandparents know even more about that ... they have two generations to watch out for. And children, too, keep watch ... keep watch for their parents and their sisters and brothers ... and for their friends and pets. We shepherds ... we pastors ... keep watch in the dark.
And so we gather here ... shepherds keeping watch by night ... watching for danger. But what happens next is so unexpected that it is frightening. All of a sudden it is light ... and there is a messenger from God. The shepherds are ready for trouble ... for thieves who come to steal the sheep ... or wolves who come to make a meal of the sheep. They are listening and watching for danger. In fact, they are so prepared for trouble that when something wonderful happens they are terrified. That is what Juliette noticed about this story when she was preparing the drawing for the Season of Christmas for our new calendar. She wondered why the shepherds would be terrified. That is why there is a scar on the angel’s cheek in her picture. Juliette imagines that the messenger from God has been hurt in the past and looks scary. To tell the truth, we know the story so well that we have a hard time being frightened by the angel choir anymore.
Though this year we gather knowing what it means to be frightened ... and to realize that we need to keep watch for danger. When we got out our candle tapers to use again on Christmas Eve ... the ones we use every year ... I was surprised to find many of them had been almost used up. I was just about to get angry with whoever had gone and taken our Christmas Eve candles and used them without asking ... when Janice quietly said: “Well, when the VST community stopped classes on the morning of September 11th and gathered in the Chapel we needed candles to hold ... so we used these.” “Oh”, I said. Oh, indeed. That Tuesday was sunny and beautiful out ... yet in this Chapel the community gathered to light these Christmas Eve tapers because the day was so dark with sadness and fear. Yes, we know what it means to be terrified. That is why the first words from God’s angel are “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Those who keep watch by night are so ready for trouble, so prepared for terror ... that they can hardly believe their eyes and ears. Good news? In this bad news world? A saviour? A messiah? Yes. The babe in the manger, the preacher on the mount, the healer on the sabbath, the friend of sinners, the crucified and risen One - Jesus, born of Mary is the Christ, the Word of God in human form. This is the good news that overcomes our fear with joy and sends us out to tell it with our lives on the mountain. This is the gospel that gives us the courage to make room for the lost and the least in our overcrowded inns and lives and times. Amen? Amen!