The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
December 24, 2019
We have prepared. We have kept Advent. We have decorated and shopped and watched and waited and we are now here at the moment of Christmas.
Gathered tonight in a beautiful church, singing hymns of joy, hearing readings of the great miracle of Christ’s birth, we may find ourselves settling into the warm glow of God’s grace for a well needed rest. That is, after all, what this Silent Night draws us to do. It is right and fitting that we take such moments in our lives to restore and nourish our souls. But that is not the end of it.
There is more to this life of faith than silent nights. Luke tells us this in our Gospel reading. It would be easy to miss it but it is there. It is there in a single word: returned. Luke tells us “And the shepherds returned….” Why is this so important?
Some comparing between the Gospels is needed to understand just how important it is that Luke tells us the shepherds returned to their flocks.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus has the remarkable ability to call people from their old lives into new, renewed and reformed lives. The list of those who were called by Jesus and who abruptly left behind their lives and livelihoods to follow him is quite extensive.
Among the apostles, Matthew, the tax collector, arose and followed Jesus at his call. So did the fishermen James and John. Mary Magdalene also left behind all that she had known to follow Jesus.
This dynamic of receiving Jesus’ call and embracing a new life is so central that in many places the Gospels are able to reduce Jesus’ call to two simple words, “Follow me.”
But Luke tells a different story. It is a story for the rest of us. Early in tonight’s reading we have the groundwork laid for a story of those who would leave everything behind to follow our Lord. The shepherds, after a visitation from an angel, promptly abandoned their flocks in the fields to go to Bethlehem and see the new born Christ child. But Luke changes the dynamic of the story.
Luke tells us that the shepherds returned to their flocks. But he also tells us they did not return unchanged. They returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen….” Returning is a very important aspect to the Gospel of Luke. In fact, no other Gospel uses the word return but Luke.
Consider also that the word is used 39 times in the entire New Testament; 36 of them are used in the Gospel of Luke and its companion book the Acts of the Apostles. Returning is a very important aspect to Luke. But the frequency of Luke’s use of the word is not the only important fact, it is also how Luke uses the word that is important for us to remember on such silent nights as this.
Luke often uses the word return as a way to note that a person has experienced something amazing and is going back home to tell others of the experience, hence we read that the shepherds “returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen….”
The same dynamic and the same choice face us this night. We have heard the news of Christ’s birth. We have come to this approximation of Bethlehem to share in the joy and glory of God’s miracle.
But we, too, shall return. We shall return to our homes and our jobs, to our classrooms and our recreations, to our chores and our errands. But will we be returning glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen?
The Gospels are clear that Jesus calls us to new life. The stories of Jesus calling a person who leaves everything behind to follow him are important. But few of us will have such experiences; few of us are able to set aside our entire lives to follow Jesus so radically. Many of us still have flocks in the field, so to speak, that we are responsible to tend. Few of us can leave everything. But those of us who cannot can return renewed, filled with good news of a great joy that has come to all people. Our savior has been born, the savior of all.
Our savior has been born and tonight as we return home, tomorrow as we return to our families, next week as we return to our daily lives let us return glorying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen. For to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.