When They Had Seen Him
“Glo-o-ria, Glor-o-ria, in excelsis Deo” the air was filled with the news, “Glory to God in the highest!” Moments before everything had been dark, quiet,…uneventful. The shepherds’ eyes were accustomed to the star-lit night, watching the perimeters of the flock for predators, when the most extraordinary thing happened. An angel appeared and these common shepherds were enveloped in the glory of the Lord.
“A baby has been born!” What a joyful announcement – we’ve had a baby!
When we had Nicholas, we went into the hospital early on a Wednesday morning. People were expecting news by Wednesday night dinner, but he still hadn’t come. Choir practice was over, and he still hadn’t come. And then, finally, he came by C-section at 9:41 that night. Mom and Dad stayed all day, waiting. They had been with us in a room until they were sent to a waiting room as Chris and I went into the surgery suite, and then they took us upstairs in a service elevator. Chris went downstairs to the waiting room and told them the news – his name is “Nicholas Riley, and he weighs 8 pounds, 9 ounces, he is 21” long and everybody is doing well.” Grandparents first, siblings, friends and church family, formal announcements, the news rippled forth. The same ripples spread the news when Elizabeth entered our world – grandparents, siblings, friends and church family, formal announcements.
It seems odd that the first people to whom God announced his child’s birth were shepherds, …or perhaps it is significant. New Testament scholar, Dr. Robert Tannehill, suggests that “The figure of the shepherd has the same ambiguous quality as a royal baby in a manger.” There, in the city of David, where David had been sent out to shepherd his father’s flocks and called in to be anointed to be king, shepherds were the ones told of the birth of the long-awaited anointed One who would grow up like a shoot from the cut off stump of King David’s lineage.
And they were given two signs, neither supernatural or spectacular. The first was nothing out of the ordinary, “you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.” These were strips of cloth like bandages; they would take them and wrap them around the baby to keep their limbs straight. The second sign was unique, unusual, but not at all sensational; the baby will be in a manger, in a feeding trough, hewn out of stone and worn smooth by animals rubbing against it as they ate.
If you go into the city, you will find a baby wrapped like mothers wrap their babies, look in with the animals because they have laid him in the feed trough. This is how you will know you have found your Savior.
And then the sky was dark again, and as their eyes adjusted to the twinkling lights of the night sky, the shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem, the city of David, and see. They had heard the singing, they had seen the bright glory, but they wanted to see for themselves. I wonder if they needed to see for themselves. I wonder if they questioned the signs. I wonder if there were doubters, or grumpy about having to pack up and herd the sheep into the caves – to see a baby?
I wonder if any of their hearts were two sizes too small.
I wonder if they were cynical and skeptical like the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas as they discussed whether to go looking for this baby. Could it really be? Could the angels’ song really be true?
The Grinch didn’t believe that the Whos’ song was true, and he dreaded the moment they would “stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing. They’d sing! And they’d sing! And they’d SING! SING! SING! SING! And the more the Grinch thought of this Who-Christmas-Sing, The more the Grinch thought, “I must stop this whole thing!…I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!…But HOW?”
Well, he goes down to Whoville in the dark and packs up the presents, the stockings, the trimming and trappings, the feast and the fire. And as the light breaks, he waits in the quiet to hear the reaction.
“Glo-o-ria, Glor-o-ria, in excelsis Deo” the air was filled with the news, “Glory to God in the highest!” “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing!”
And the Grinch is puzzled. “How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags!…Then the Grinch though of something he hadn’t before! Maybe Christmas, he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.” It doesn’t come from a palace. It doesn’t come with mystical signs.
In the most common places, without extraordinary signals, God comes to us, our hearts grow, and we are never the same.
In a stable, wrapped in swaddling, lying in a manger, God came. Once the shepherds saw the baby lying in the manger, they couldn’t wait to share the news. Everyone they told was amazed. And then they returned, their daily life remained the same, they were still shepherds, yet now they sing- glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.
In the town of Whoville, standing side by side, singing, God came. Once the Grinch realizes that Christmas is about more than getting and eating, that there is a reason for the feasting and festing, his heart grows three sizes that day, and he returns the toys and the feast and joins in the celebration.
As she held her baby watching the shepherds leave, Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. The word we translate pondered has a sense of ongoing discovery. Mary ruminated on what this all meant and as she contemplated what had taken place, she knew God was with her, even as she wondered at this bundle nestled in her arms.
Rev. Dr. Will Willimon has spent most of his ministry at Duke Divinity School. He tells the story of a college couple met at an information meeting for the Spring Mission Team to Honduras. They started going out together and things seemed great between them. The young man had mused, “We’re going to Honduras together and who knows where it might lead for the two of us?”
And then one day, around Christmas time, a friend saw him walking dejectedly across campus. “What’s up?” the friend said.
“Marianne isn’t going to Honduras,” he said gloomily.
“I’m sorry. Do you know why,” the friend responded. “Time? Money?”
“No,” he responded, “Marianne said that her older sister, Clarinda, went down there and it changed her. Made her mom and dad furious. Clarinda said she met God down there. Marianne said she got turned upside down.”
I don’t know exactly what Clarinda experienced in Honduras, but I know that it was in a common place in need, as she cared for the least of these, she met God, her heart grew, and she was transformed.
The signs of God’s presence among us are simple, common…the hug of a friend, the sharing of a meal, the giving of a gift, the beauty of music rippling with God’s glory…yet we have experienced how extraordinary these simple, common signs are as our hearts have expanded with exuberant joy. Too often we are looking for something miraculous, something unexplainable. God is with us in our lives every day. And when we have seen him, like the shepherds and the Grinch, like Mary and like every person who has served another in need, we are transformed, our hearts expand, our story cannot be kept silent…and all who hear it are amazed.
“Glo-o-ria! Glo-o-ria! In excelsis Deo!” Glory to God in the highest!