Dear Friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is not easy to preach on Christmas Eve.  There are the toddlers, anxiously tugging at their parents’ arms. “Daddy, is the preacher finished?” One father sighed and whispered. “Yep, he’s finished, but he hasn’t stopped talking yet.”  There’s the youngster who is impatiently waiting to tell his grandma that he had a part to play in the Christmas Program.  And when she finally had the opportunity to ask, “What part?” he replied, “I was one of the three wise guys!” There are the newly-weds nervously pondering the Christmas gifts to be given and wondering whether more gifts are exchanged on Christmas or the day after.  And there are the usual critics.  As Mark Twain once chided. “He charged nothing for his preaching. And it was worth it.”

In comparison the congregation gathered on the hillside overlooking the little town of Bethlehem on that first Christmas eve was a sympathetic and captive audience.  There were only a handful of shepherds to witness the wonder and mystery of that holy night. They were the ancient world’s forgotten men and boys; life’s misbegotten shepherds. They slept beneath the stars with worn and tattered blankets.  They warmed themselves by smoky fires.  And across the burning embers they watched their wandering companions – the sheep and the lambs. They themselves had no dreams or illusions of life being anything more. And yet, the shepherds observed more of the mystery of that holy night in Bethlehem than all the princes and priests in Jerusalem.

When the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, the shepherds were terrified.  But they went with haste to Bethlehem to see what had come to pass.  And when they saw Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in the manger, they made known what had been told them. They had been transformed from shepherds into messengers.  And whoever heard the story was amazed at what the shepherds told them.

The story of the shepherds, you see, reminds us that it is God’s intent for you to enjoy the wonder of our Savior’s nativity, and more importantly it is God’s intent that you should be changed by this birth. Four hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote, “Of what benefit would it be to me if Jesus would have been born a thousand times and it would have been sung daily in my ears that Jesus Christ was born, but that I was never to hear that Jesus Christ was born for me?”  Our Lord doesn’t expect you to be silent, pious observers. In the Gospel of Saint Luke, the evangelist invites to share the joy of the Christmas story with those you love.

My friends, together with the words of a dear friend and poet, Betty Westrum Skold, let me offer you a reverie of poetry and word in this Christmas Eve sermon entitled–A Guest Wrapped in Linen to inspire and encourage you to be like the shepherds and share the good news of the savior’s birth.

You and I, we have all been called to be messengers, but some of us are rather reluctant shepherds.  Yes, we know the words of the Christmas angel, but we’re a little sheepish about sharing the good news with others.  You know the music of the heavenly chorus, but you’re not quite sure of singing a solo.

Perhaps, you think that you don’t have the gift or skill set God needs for a messenger.  Consider the words of Betty Skold in a poem entitled, “I’m a Fixture.”

  • At church I’m a kind of fixture, Lord, a part of the permanent installation, like the pew racks, or the candelabra, or the stained glass.
  • If a sign-up sheet is passed around, my name is on it.
  • If a meeting is called, I have a tendency to show up.
  • Through the years I have taken my turn as Bible study leader and clean-up chairman.
  • At bazaar time they’ve learned I can’t do stitchery or macramé or hand-thrown pottery,
  • But I can arrive a little late toting four loaves of Swedish rye, big and irregular and steaming with old-fashioned fragrance.
  • They’re used to me around the church, Lord, but I don’t cause much of a stir.
  • My life story seems colorless, a record of unspectacular sinning and gentle forgiveness and a quiet resolve to mend my ways.
  • A part of me dreams of being a swift-footed messenger, surprising somebody (anybody with some prophetic lightning bolt.
  • But remind me, Lord, that I’m not the star attraction.  You are.
  • Remind me that my life story isn’t the one that needs telling.  Yours is.

 

The shepherds who had witnessed the glory of heaven didn’t mistake their tale for the message of the angels.  They knew the story that needed telling was the good news that a Savior had been born.  My friends, perhaps, you think that you don’t have the gift or skill set God needs for a messenger.  You’re simply a fixture in your home.  “Do not be afraid.”  God will help you to tell his story.

Or perhaps, you feel that you’re a little out of touch.  Somebody else can do the proclaiming better than you can- a neighbor, the Sunday School teacher, or even the pastor.  After all, that’s what he’s paid to do.  You’re a bit anxious.  It all seems so long ago and you may have forgotten a few of the details.  Listen to the words of a poem entitled, “The Grandchildren Are Coming.”

  • They’re on their way, Lord.  Freeway 94, Highway 7, County Road 18, All roads lead to Granny’s.
  • There are gingersnaps in my cookie can and stubby crayons in the box.
  • Now it’s time to set things up high-toothpaste and razor blades and heirloom vases.
  • I’ll put things out of reach.  It’s easier than saying no.
  • But keep me within reach, Lord.  I’m unbreakable. I don’t belong up high.
  • Remind me to stoop down.
  • Make me available for touching and hugging and reading stories.
  • Slow down my clock, Lord.  I’ll take time for their “help.”
  • I’ll tie big aprons under their armpits.  I’ll wash their hands and stand them on a kitchen chair and let them punch bread dough.  They’re almost here, Lord.  Make me ready.

My friends, perhaps, you feel that you’re a little out of touch.  Certainly, the shepherds resting in the hills of Bethlehem under the starry skies felt alone and out of touch.  Night after night they watched the flickering lights of their homes from a distance.  But when the angels had left them and gone into heaven, they said one to another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem.”  And they went with haste to see the Guest Wrapped in Linen.  And they found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  They made known what had been told them about this child.  They knew it was their joy and privilege to share this good news.  “Be not afraid.”  God is preparing you even to tell the story.  It is your privilege.

Or perhaps, you feel you just need little a push. We all need a bit of incentive. The distractions of the seasons, and the colorful sideshows of Christmas often hinder the messenger’s path.  Betty Skold writes:

  • I think I could use an angel, Lord.
  • Not one to guard my sleep. My sleep is in good shape.
  • I need an angel like those in the Bible, the ones who said, “Get a move on.”
  • To Peter in jail the angel said, “Rise quickly!”  To Joseph in a dream, “Go Quickly!’
  • To Philip, “Arise and go.”
  • A siren voice from somewhere else coaxes me, “Take it easy. Prop up your feet.
  • Plop the recliner down. Urgency is no big deal.”
  • Send me an angel, God, an angel who will hand me a parking ticket.
  • Send me an angel who will shake me awake, pull me to my feet, and tell me, “Get going.”

The shepherds of Bethlehem didn’t need a little push.  They weren’t struggling to make this “the best Christmas ever.”  That night in Bethlehem was the best Christmas ever, and all others have paled in comparison. And along the way the shepherds became angels. Of course, no one would have confused these dusty country folk with the angelic host. But the shepherds knew that something was different.

You see, there is more to this story; there is good news as well; so good that the angel of the Lord was sent to proclaim it; so good that the whole heavenly host sang it,  “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”  And that is our hope.  Even in a world, filled with political turmoil, peace resting on shaky ground, a marriage tottering on the brink of divorce, a loved one suffering from a terminal disease, an empty chair at the Christmas table, a bank foreclosure looming, a less than hopeful doctor’s diagnosis, even in a world like this, God says to you, “Do not be afraid.”

The gifts under the Christmas tree may be for children, but the message of Christmas is not.  For this Guest Wrapped in Linen is the only gift that will take away all your fears.  For he is the one who promises to walk with you through the darkest valleys; the one who will stand beside you when others doubt you; the one who will comfort and console you in the hour of death and the one who will lead you to his eternal home.

My friends, are you a reluctant shepherd?  You’re afraid you don’t have the skills needed.  You feel a bit distant, or maybe you need a little push.  There is no greater gift you can share with your family than the gift of the Christ Child.  “Do not be afraid.” God is making shepherds into angels every day and every Christmas Eve. And this child, his grace, his presence, and his love will be sufficient for you this blessed day, and all the days of your lives. Amen.

Merry Christmas! May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.