Waiting with the Shepherds
by Jack Wald | December 9th, 2012

Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:7-17

In each life, in each generation, there are unforgettable moments. My father remembered where he was when he heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He remembered where he was when he heard that the war in the Pacific was over. In my life I remember where I was when I heard that President Kennedy was shot. I remember where I was when I was told that planes had flown into the World Trade Towers in New York City. These are unforgettable generational moments. Most people in a country can remember where they were when national events within their lifetime took place.

But there are personal unforgettable moments as well. I was having supper with a friend in Azrou when I received word my mother had died. I was working in an abandoned building behind our apartment, preparing the building to be renovated, when Annie came back from the doctor to tell me she was pregnant with our first child – very unexpected news. I have pictures of Annie that stay in my mind. In the summer before we were married, I came home in the middle of the night from the auto assembly plant where I was working and saw Annie walking on the lawn in the mist of the early morning and the light of the moon. I will never forget that picture that is locked in my memory.

I remember sitting in a church in Chicago, listening to a young man telling about how he had recently become a follower of Jesus and saying to God, “OK, I will give my life to you but not here in front of all these people.”

I remember sitting in a chair at university, waiting for someone I was going to have lunch with, and praying. All of a sudden I found myself saying to God that I would give up my three month long resistance to his call and go to seminary.

I have never seen an angel, other than that beautiful, young woman walking on the lawn in the moonlight, waiting for me to get back from work. But if I had, I would never forget that moment.

The shepherds were out in the field, probably in the springtime, watching their flocks. They had to be awake to be on guard for any predators who would come to take one of their sheep, but there was not a lot that happened that was eventful during these nights. They had a fire to keep warm and fires tell lots of stories as you watch the flames and embers moving and dancing in the fire. And they had the stars to watch which told stories as well. Although they moved far more slowly than the flames and embers, they moved through the sky in an annual dance.

In the quiet of this night, as they were keeping watch over their flocks, the sky opened up with a brilliant display of light and an angel appeared saying:
“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 Savior 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.”

They were terrified by this intrusion into the quiet of their night and then:
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 favor rests.”

Over the years the young men who came to learn how to be shepherds would sit around the fire and listen to stories of what had happened in past nights as they watched over their flocks. They heard stories of bears and lions who crept up and how they were chased away or killed. They heard some exciting stories, but there had never, ever been anything like this.

An angel appeared and then a host of angels and told them about the birth of the Messiah, a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

So they left the field and came with their flock to Bethlehem to see if what the angel had told them was true. And then, there he was, a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, just as they had been told.

As the people of Bethlehem woke up that morning, the whole town was buzzing with the news that this young couple who had come from Nazareth had given birth to a baby boy and that the shepherds were telling everyone that angels had appeared in the night sky telling them this baby boy was the Messiah.

This was an experience etched in the memory of the shepherds, never to be forgotten.

In the following year, the shepherds came by the street where Mary and Joseph had found a house to see the baby boy. They looked at Jesus and remembered the angels. Neighbors saw Mary come out of the house and walk to the market to buy food supplies and remembered the story the shepherds had told. No one forgot. Everyone watched. Who was this child? When they looked, they saw that he was a baby boy like all the other baby boys. He had to be nursed and changed and carried. He cried like other babies. And they asked themselves, “What did all this mean?”
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

Could this baby boy really be the Messiah?

Sometime in that next year there was another amazing experience that had all of Bethlehem talking once again. Wise men came from the east in a caravan and asked where they could find a baby boy who had been born within the past year. They talked of being led by the stars and so the people in Bethlehem told them about the experience of the shepherds in the field and directed them to the house where Mary and Joseph were living. The Magi came to the house, were offered hospitality by Mary and Joseph, presented their expensive gifts and told why they had traveled so far, and then left to return home.

Not everyone in Bethlehem had seen the angels but everyone saw the Magi and now all the speculation about who Jesus was rose up once again. Who was this baby whose birth was announced by angels and who was visited by Magi who had traveled a great distance, guided by the stars, to honor him and give him expensive presents?

It was just a few days later, perhaps a week or so later, that a woman who had woken up in the middle of the night to nurse her crying baby heard a sound in the street and looked out to see that Mary and Joseph were rushing out of town. This was strange. Why would someone leave in the middle of the night and be in such a rush?

As people woke up to the new day, once again there was a story to tell and once again, it was a story concerning this strange family who had come from Nazareth. Why had they left so suddenly? Why had they not left during the day? Why had they not said goodbye?

Maybe it was that day or maybe in the day or two after this, but as the speculation was buzzing, the sound of soldiers coming into Bethlehem was heard. What was happening?

And then the slaughter began. The soldiers grabbed every baby boy they could find and killed him. They entered house after house, looking under beds, behind furniture, grabbing the baby boys and killing them. The cries of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and grandparents, the cries of Bethlehem rose up as the slaughter continued.

Then it was over and the soldiers left with the weeping and wailing behind them.

It must have been that some of the shepherds who had been in the field that night were in Bethlehem when the soldiers arrived. It could be that one of the fathers who grieved at the murder of his son was one of those shepherds. Did anyone put it all together? The announcement of angels to the shepherds, the visit of the magi, the hurried departure of Mary and Joseph, and the arrival of the soldiers, how were these connected?

The angel had announced that the birth of Jesus was good news of great joy for all the people. How was the slaughter of these baby boys, in any way, good news?

This question sat unanswered for thirty years.

Thirty years later when people from all over Israel came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Passover, were any of the shepherds who had seen the angels that night present in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified? Were there any of the parents of the murdered baby boys present in Jerusalem that last week of Jesus on earth? Were any of them present at Pentecost when the promised Holy Spirit descended?

Bethlehem is only nine kilometers from Jerusalem so it seems likely that many of the people of Bethlehem would join the pilgrims in Jerusalem for the annual festivals. It must have been that some of them were present and if they were, then, after a long thirty year wait, they could begin to understand what the angel had announced that night in the field:
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

The experience of the shepherds is a condensed version, a microcosm, of our own experience. Jesus promised that he would return, but that was almost 2,000 years ago. His own disciples thought his return would be within their generation. Generation after generation has thought that Jesus would be returning soon and that “soon” has stretched into century after century.

And like the shepherds, we have lots of questions to ask as we experience tragedy. Some of us have family tragedies that weigh heavily on us. How can a loving God allow such suffering? But when we extend our view to the larger world and then even farther to the larger world over time, what we see crushes us. The news bombards us with stories of massacres, sex trafficking of women and young children, exploitation of young children in sweat shops to produce goods for the Western world, slavery, abuse of women and children, famines, earthquakes, typhoons and hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, economic depressions and exploitation – the list goes on and on and on without end.

Throughout history questions have been raised. The Black Plague killed half of the population of Europe in the 14th century. Between 20-50 million people died worldwide in the 1918 flu pandemic. My grandfather’s brother, Alfie, was one of those. As technology advances, the destruction of wars increase. Between 50,000,000 and 70,000,000 people died in WWII. More and more people suffer because of the ever-present wars we fight.

So we, like the shepherds, have lots of questions to ask. The angel said:
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

Really? Tell me how this is good news for all those who suffer so terribly. How was this good news for the parents in Bethlehem? If the gospel of Jesus is good news only for those who lead relatively comfortable and affluent lives, then it is not much of a gospel. How is the gospel good news for those who suffer in this world?

Let me present three reasons we can be hopeful as we hold on to the good news of the gospel.

Suppose you are walking in the woods and all of a sudden the ground beneath your feet gives way and you fall into a hole, an abandoned well. When you recover from the fall, you discover that except for some scrapes and bruises you are ok, but now what do you do? It is not possible to climb out. There are no handholds or footholds. You yell and yell but there is no response. You sit at the bottom of this hole and wonder what is going to happen to you. Will snakes and rats and spiders find their way to you? As you consider all these terrible images, you decide to yell again. But nothing. You sit for hours in the hole, yelling occasionally. Finally just as it is getting dark and you are facing the prospect of spending the night in the hole, you hear footsteps. You cry out and hear a voice respond. A face appears, a young boy, and he tells you to wait, he will go get help.

All of a sudden you begin to relax. Why? You are still sitting in the bottom of the hole. Your physical condition has not changed. But now help is on the way. Knowing you will be rescued makes you relieved and hopeful.

Jesus has promised he will come for us. Help is on the way and he has promised us that he will prepare a place in his kingdom for us. (John 14:1–4)
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Jesus has promised to deliver us from all the evil and suffering of this world and take us to where (Revelation 21:3–4)
the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

As difficult and as terrible as the circumstances of life are, the promise of Jesus gives us encouragement because help is on the way. This circumstance, whatever it is, will not last forever.

The first reason for hope is that help is on the way and the second is that while we wait, we are not alone. When Jesus ascended, the Father sent the Holy Spirit to be present with us. While we sit in the bottom of the hole, facing whatever difficulty we are enduring, we are not alone. God is present with us.

These are the two great promises of God: He promises to be present with us through all of life’s events. No matter how difficult the circumstance, we are never alone. God is present with us. And God promises that when it is time for us to die, he will take us to be with him in his kingdom. These are the two absolutely best promises we could hold on to. These are promises that give us hope at the bottom of an abandoned well with night approaching.

Help is on the way. God is present with us. A third reason for hope as we wait is that while we wait, the Holy Spirit is at work in us, preparing us for our eternal future.

This time of waiting is not wasted. While we wait, we are being transformed. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, to transform us to be holy and righteous. We have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, but we are not alone in our efforts to be better people. As we open the doors to the rooms of our lives, the Holy Spirit helps us to clean them out, one by one. This is a process that will go on up to the last day and hour of our earthly life.

While we sit in the bottom of the hole, wondering what will happen to us, God is at work in us. Our character is being tested and refined. As long as we remain open to God’s work in us, our time on earth is never wasted. Valuable, life-changing, character-transforming work is being done in us and we will take the fruit of this work with us into eternity.

Help is on the way. God is present with us. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, preparing us for our eternal future. This allows even the most desperate of us to be encouraged. This is good news of great joy for all the people, even people who suffer.

Why is it that it has taken so long for Jesus to return?

We wait because God loves. Follow me as I explain what I mean.

The closer suffering is to me, the more difficult it is. So when I read in the news that there was an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it does not have that much emotional cost for me. Even though there is huge devastation, I am more fascinated by the power of the earthquake and tsunami than I am wounded by the devastation of human life. I read about the suffering of others and say, “That’s too bad,” but I don’t feel very much.

If there is someone in church whose brother or sister was killed in the tsunami, then I feel the pain of the tragedy more acutely. When it is my brother or sister who suffers, then it is more difficult. When it is my wife or daughter or son, the emotional cost of the tragedy is intense. And when there is too much suffering too close to me, I break down. I am unable to carry so much pain.

Henri Nouwen, in a series of messages to priests in the priesthood, said that we are not called to do the spectacular but to take on the heart of Jesus for the world. And when we take on the heart of Jesus for the world, Nouwen writes, we need to have a love relationship with Jesus that is strong enough to sustain us.

As pastor of RIC, this is one of my struggles. As I become more intimately aware of the difficulties people face, I can begin to feel like I am drowning and each new problem is a stone laid on my back, making it more difficult to keep my head above water. And when I feel this way, I know the problem is that I have been neglecting my relationship with God and I need to be more focused on my attachment to Jesus. The strength and love I receive from Jesus allows me to carry the weight of the burdens of others.

But even when my relationship with Jesus is feeding me, there is more pain in the world than I can handle. If I were to look out over the city of Rabat, even just one section of the city, and become intimately aware of the emotional pain being experienced by the people of that small part of Rabat, or any other city in the world, I would be crushed. I would go crazy. There is too much pain in the world for any of us to handle.

But God has an intimate relationship with every person suffering in the world. He is intimately present with all who suffer and so the amount of pain God carries is immense and it is only because his love is more powerful than all the suffering of the world that he is not overcome.

God is not overcome by suffering, but there is pain for Jesus as people suffer. I heard a woman tell of a dream she had. In her dream she was talking about all the sorrows and difficulties in her life and a man dressed in white was standing in the corner of the room, weeping for her. The next day she was watching Al Hayat television and another woman was describing the same dream and she identified the man dressed in white as Jesus. That is how this woman discovered it was Jesus who was weeping for her.

The Gospels tell us Jesus wept for the pain Jerusalem would be experiencing. Jesus wept for his friends who were grieving the death of Lazarus.

Given the pain of being intimate with all the intense suffering that takes place in the world, why doesn’t Jesus simply call an end to time and bring an end to all the suffering? Wouldn’t that be best?

Peter was addressing those who were ridiculing the idea that Jesus would return. “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” Peter responded by saying, (2 Peter 3:9)
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

If Jesus had wanted to end the suffering in the 14th century when half of Europe’s population died from the plague, none of us would have existed. The suffering of the 14th century and the centuries since then has been endured so that we could have the chance to choose to follow Jesus and grow in faith. The suffering in our present world is being endured so this and future generations can choose to accept God’s gift of salvation.

If you ever want to know if God loves you, consider this: he has endured the pain of those who have suffered through the ages so you could choose him. We wait because God loves.

I know that eventually there will be an end and I ask myself the question, “What about the next generation?” There will always be a next generation, but that is one more mystery to be added to all the other mysteries I cannot answer.

What I do know is that God is being patient, enduring the suffering of those he loves in this world, so that more daughters and sons can be brought into his kingdom.

This understanding of how much God loves us should help you see that the most important work you can do in your life is to participate with Jesus in his mission to rescue this generation. We have jobs. We have school. We have to work hard to be successful in this life and our success is an important part of our witness. I am not minimizing the importance of the work we do. But that work does not have ultimate importance. All that we accomplish in our work will be left behind when we die. We will not take it with us.

But the work we do with Jesus, the transformation of our character, the development of our faith, the influence we have on others as they choose to follow Jesus and grow to be more like him, these are things that will go into eternity.

Because God loves and wants all to be saved, we wait for the return of Jesus.

We wait because God loves and we wait with hope because help is on its way. Even the worst suffering in this world will pass.

So be encouraged in your waiting. This waiting period is being used by God to prepare you for your eternity. You have meaningful work to do while you wait. Your efforts to love others in the name of Jesus will have eternal significance. And when you face difficult circumstances, be encouraged because they will not last forever. If you look only at this world, it may seem terribly unfair that some people have such an easy life and others have to work incredibly hard just to barely scratch out a living. But from the perspective of heaven, it may well be that the one to be pitied is the one who is living a comfortable and affluent life. Our material success and comfort is not how God views a life well lived.

The birth of Jesus is good news of great joy for even the most desperate of us because hope peered over the abandoned well where we are trapped and said, “Be patient. Help is coming.”