This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The shepherds watch as the angels utter their last word. The divine announcement has been made. Slowly, the angels fade into the heavens, giving way to the night sky. How do you navigate this transition? Serenading angels one moment, deafening silence the next. Their minds can’t possibly process the magnitude of this encounter. Much like a professional athlete who’s asked to explain his emotions after winning a championship, these shepherds have no words. Just silence.
Finally, someone breaks the silence.
The answer is unanimous. The next step is Bethlehem. How could they witness angels singing, proclaiming joy and peace, declaring the arrival of a Savior, and not see the child? So, they take off. Do they leave out of curiosity or a true desire to lay eyes on the Promise? Who knows. I’m not sure it matters.
This is no small step, however. Every step these shepherds take in Bethlehem’s direction is a step away from their livelihood. Shepherds watch their flocks at night because sheep are weak, vulnerable animals. They can’t defend themselves. This is the shepherds’ responsibility. And, particularly at night, sheep are susceptible to attacks. So, the shepherds kept watch. Every sheep matters because every sheep is a source of income.
Allow this to marinate. For these shepherds, traveling to Bethlehem meant abandoning their livelihood. How irresponsible, right? I mean, the angels mention something about a sign, but they don’t command the shepherds to leave their sheep. Why not wait for the next break or vacation? Why abandon everything now, without discussion or debate?
These shepherds realize a very important truth about Jesus. Receiving God’s promises costs something. Could these shepherds remain in the fields? Sure. There’s no ultimatum from God.
“I sent angels to proclaim my Son’s birth. Now travel to Bethlehem…or else.”
That’s not how God rolls. Ultimatums are connected to fear. God is love. Love doesn’t coerce or manipulate. God, instead, allows the shepherds to choose. This is the beauty of grace. It’s a choice. Always.
But – and this one is rather large – the shepherds’ decision reveals something important about the nature of transformation. Simply hearing the gospel won’t cut it. To truly experience Christ requires sacrifice. You must be willing to go on a journey of faith and trust, a journey that is uncertain and uncomfortable and risky. If you look at the story, notice when the shepherds praise and worship God. It’s after seeing the Messiah, not before. Transformation comes through experience, not merely hearing a sermon.
The church has largely failed in this regard. We’ve placed far too much emphasis on “responses” and “salvations,” raising a hand after a sermon or even being baptized. We’ve told people they can experience Christ with little or no sacrifice. Just respond to this message. Just show up for worship every week, maybe volunteer a time or two.
But you don’t really have to leave the sheep in the fields. You don’t have to give up anything. This is the gospel of commercialization and cultural relevance. It’s not the gospel of Jesus. Following Jesus has always cost something, everything.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus first’ sermon started with “Repent.” Change your mind, in other words. Turn around. Stop living the same way.
Proclamation matters. You can’t respond to a gospel you don’t know exists. We need preaching and corporate worship. Hearing the gospel is merely an entry point to Jesus, however, not the end goal. A sermon will hardly transform you. I know your pastor has charisma and solid communication skills and all. But he’s not an angel. If a divine proclamation from angelic beings isn’t sufficient to transform people, your pastor’s words probably won’t do it either.
You can settle for sermons. This too is the grace of God. Remaining in the fields is an option. God won’t be upset. He won’t smite you (what does that even mean?). But you won’t find Life there. You won’t be transformed until you journey to Bethlehem and experience Jesus yourself. Advent confronts conventional wisdom. You must leave the fields of comfort and certainty to find Christ.
You can’t go on thinking the same old way and doing the same old thing and expect to find Abundant Life.
Have you settled for the fields of comfort and security? How can you take a step of faith today?
Father, I confess that I often settle for the fields instead of experiencing Jesus. I want to be transformed. I need help. Give me courage. Give me faith. Amen!