When I visited the shepherd’s fields outside Bethlehem some years ago, I remember thinking what a very unlikely place it was for an angelic visitation. Despite all its fame it still remains a working area, where modern shepherds still keep small flocks of scrawny sheep and goats, and olive trees struggle through the dry earth to bring a crop that means a subsistence living for a poor Palestinian family. And it’s that ordinariness, that normality, which still speaks to me today of what God did at Christmas. He interrupted the ordinary, everyday lives of working people to place into their hands the Saviour of the world. And in a sense, that happens again this and every Christmas. Jesus comes into the midst of a busy, distracted working world, and asks us to pause and think for a moment about God’s amazing love. The shepherds were willing to do that, even to come and worship at the manger of which they had been told. Their lives would return to the ordinary, the routine, but they knew that now everything was different. Christ had come. Life had changed. God’s love had turned on their light.
‘And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests." 15 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." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
My most recent visit to Bethlehem was a very different kind of experience. Prior to the intifada – the uprising of Palestinian violence – we had been able to go right into the town and even into the church of the Nativity itself where it is believed traditionally that the manger was located. But on this next occasion we were not allowed to go right into the town of Bethlehem at all. We stopped at a hotel overlooking the area in the distance, and from there we could see helicopter gunships and distant plumes of smoke that may well have come from the battle that was then going on in the town. Today the little town of Bethlehem is behind the security wall that the Israeli government has built, and some of the Christians who are living there are finding it extremely hard to follow the Lord under pressure from the Muslims on one hand and the Jews on the other. It’s a pressure point, a place of conflict. Yet, that is where God chose to send His Son who would be called The Prince of Peace. Today the only hope for the Middle East, and for each one of us individually, is to ask Jesus Christ to come in and rule over our hearts as sovereign Lord, dealing with the problem of our sin as only He can, and giving us the benefit of His peace and joy. In the words of the ancient carol He was ‘born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth’.
‘Lord, help us to open up our hearts to you this Christmas time, and whether our situation is ordinary or even boring and routine, or whether we are in conflict or under pressure, come into our lives and make the difference that only You can do. In the name of Jesus, Amen.’
Have a very happy Christmas.