Luke 2:8-20

Christmas Eve Midnight Communion


Rev Jeremy Bevan

Among the many words you could use to describe the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, ‘surprising’ is certainly one. Elizabeth, surprisingly, becomes pregnant past childbearing age; an unexpected angelic visitor announces a startling turn of events to Mary; and confounding all expectation, Joseph remains betrothed to her. For me, the shepherds are right up there in the astonishment stakes. They are outsiders, almost forgotten people an angel ushers into the centre of the glorious drama unfolding in Bethlehem.

Everyone else is making their way to the town where they were born for the census. Not the shepherds: they seem literally not to have counted as far as the empire was concerned. And though those flocks they watched by night may well have ended up as temple sacrifices, the shepherds themselves didn’t count for much in Jewish religious life either: they weren’t allowed to give the readings from the Jewish scriptures at synagogue services, for example. 

Despite all that, God send them of all people an angel to tell them the Messiah is born. They are the first to know, not the last. The angel’s words to them are emphatic – with a threefold emphasis: it’s to you, yes, you overlooked, forgotten people, you as much as to anyone else, that this saviour is born.

I wonder why God chose them? The simple answer, of course, the one that reading from the letter to Titus gives, is because God is kind, generous, merciful: in short, God loves – loves all that God has made. But do the angel’s emphatic words suggest hearts, and minds, ready for good news? The shepherds, like their modern-day counterparts, might describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ on a census form. Long nights spent with danger ever present, and beneath the vast expanse of a starry heaven, must have turned their thoughts to what it all meant; what the point of their life was? Perhaps the angel speaks not into a void so much as into hearts and minds that are (as it were) cup-shaped receptacles for the good news. Like ours, perhaps, if we’re tempted to think we don’t matter, or God has overlooked us?

It must have been hard for the shepherds to believe the angel was addressing them, and not looking over their shoulders at someone else. But there is no-one else out there on the hills. And when God tells them the good news of a saviour is for them, as much as it is for anyone else, they are changed. They’re no longer people to whom life just happens. They decide for themselves to go and see what the angel has told them: let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And this is not just a fleeting change. The angel’s words seem to provoke something seismic within the shepherds. New-found self-respect. Determination. Knowing you’re loved by God can do all that, and more. The shepherds might have knocked on many doors in Bethlehem before they found the right guest-house, risking the locals’ scorn at such smelly, surprisingly late-night callers.

Our gospel reading makes clear that they hung around awhile when they finally got to Mary, Joseph and Jesus, an example we do well to follow. And blessed by their own inclusion in the good news, they in turn bless Mary with their willingness to share it. Nine months since that angel appeared to her, she must have welcomed the shepherds’ fresh and surprising news of not just one, but a host of angels, confirming she hadn’t been imagining things: Jesus indeed was world-changing good news. Let’s take a moment tonight to reflect on how we may bless others with the good news of Christmas tomorrow (today?), just as those shepherds did. It’s good news for all people everywhere: as needed as it is surprising.

I wonder what happened after Bethlehem? The shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they’d heard and seen. What then? We may say this much: once God had told them they mattered, had a part in God’s plan no matter how overlooked they’d felt, they would never forget. And God so loved, still loves, the world that God sent Jesus to show each and every one of us, how much we matter to God; that we are loved by God; that God’s favour rests on us just as surely as it did on those surprised shepherds in the Bethlehem hills. Good news for us, and for our world this Christmas. Amen.