Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT THE SHEPHERDS SAW
Isn’t it ironic that whenever Christmas falls on a Sunday, we consider it a nuisance? Worship on Christmas interferes with our Christmas. Some churches have decided not to fight the battle. They figure few people will be in church Christmas Sunday anyway, so they’ve cancelled their worship services for today. They’ve focused on their Christmas Eve services. That’s where the crowds are. People who don’t go to church, go to church on Christmas Eve. People who do go to church, don’t go to church when Christmas falls on a Sunday.
Except for you. You made it to church even though it’s Christmas. Maybe because it’s Christmas, you made a special effort to be here. You’ve followed the example of the shepherds who we read about today. They celebrated Christmas by “glorifying and praising God for all they had seen.”
Why are the shepherds there? We often hear they are there as eyewitnesses. They are there to see what the angels had told them to see so they can now go and tell others about the birth of Jesus. And news will spread, and pretty soon everyone will know. Is that why they are there? As eyewitnesses?
Shepherds in that day were not allowed to testify in court. No one would believe them. They were outcasts. They were the last people you would want to use as eyewitnesses.
Luke is one of two versions of the Christmas story. He tells us about the shepherds. Matthew’s version of the same story leaves out the shepherds but tells us about the wise men that Luke leaves out. Matthew has the right people cast in the role of eyewitnesses. Wise men were highly respected. They were on the opposite end of the social scale from shepherds. They worked for kings. Sometimes we say they were kings, as in the song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” But they weren’t kings. They were wise men. They were astrologers. They studied the stars. Which means they were the scientists of their day. And what more reliable witnesses do you want than scientists?
But here’s something interesting. The eyewitnesses to the birth of Jesus don’t tell anyone else what they saw. The shepherds don’t. The last we hear of them they are glorifying God. There is no indication they had a thing to do with spreading the good news about Jesus. And the wise men don’t tell anyone either. They’re supposed to at least go tell Herod. But they don’t. They go home another way. As far as we know they never told anybody anything.
A few years ago Helen and I visited Savannah, Georgia. It is a famous city for United Methodists and Nazarenes and all those who trace their heritage back to John Wesley, because it’s the only place in the United States (or the western hemisphere for that matter) where John Wesley set foot.
Savannah is also important to Girl Scouts. Juliette Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of America, lived in Savannah, Georgia. Her house is still there.
A young girl was visiting her grandmother who lived in Savannah. Her grandmother took her to see the Juliette Low house, not the most exciting thing for a little girl to do. She told her granddaughter that if anyone ever asked her who founded the Girl Scouts of America, now she would be able to say it was Juliette Low.
The next year the little girl visited her grandmother in Savannah again. The first words out of her mouth were, “Nobody ever asked me who founded the Girl Scouts of America.”
Apparently nobody ever asked the shepherds about what they saw in the manger. They just looked and left. We never hear from them again. So they don’t seem to be there as eyewitnesses. Why else might they be there. Here’s a clue. The last thing we are told about them is that they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen.” What had they seen? They had seen a new-born baby. So what. Babies are born all the time. But they had seen more than what most people would have seen. They saw God in that new-born baby.
So maybe that’s why the shepherds are there. They are there to show us how to see God in the world.
I’m sure the shepherds weren’t the only people to see Jesus as a baby. A lot of people must have looked at him and held him and gushed over him as we all do over newborn babies. But the shepherds were the only ones who went away glorifying God for all they had seen. How do we account for that? What did the shepherds see that no one else saw?
There’s a book called Space and Sight by Marius Von Senden. That’s just part of the title. The full title is, Space and Sight: The Perception of Space and Shape in the Congenitally Blind Before and After Operation. If that doesn’t sound like one to add to your “must read” list, I don’t blame you. But it’s a fascinating book. It’s about some of the early cataract operations, operations performed on people with congenital cataracts which had caused them to be blind from birth.
The doctors, before these operations, would give their patients objects they could identify by touch. And after the operations, now that they could see these same objects, they could no longer identify them. They had no idea what they were.
They had a hard time with space, with depth. A newly sighted girl looked at a photograph and asked, “What are all those dark patches?” If was explained that they were shadows, and that without shadows everything would just look flat. The girl said, “That’s the way things are. Everything is flat with dark patches.”
These newly sighted people would reach for things, expecting to grab them, but the things they were grabbing for were still several feet away. They had no sense of depth. They had no idea the world is as big as it really is. They believed as they say in Disneyland that, “It’s a Small World After All.” The world to them was limited to what they could reach out and touch. Now that they could see the vastness of this world, they had to be taught to believe their eyes. They had to be taught to see depth.
Some of these patients actually preferred the darkness and the smallness of the world they were used to. One father reported that his daughter who could now see for the first time in her life, would walk around the house with her eyes closed. She was never so happy as when her eyes were closed.
Maybe that’s a clue for us on this Christmas morning. Some people look at Jesus and see nothing special, but the shepherds looked at Jesus and went away glorifying God for all they had seen. They were able to look and see into the depth of things.
Jesus talked about people who having eyes, still cannot see (Mark 8:18). Is he talking about us? You tell me. Have you ever said, “We don’t have a race problem here”? Or, “We don’t have any poverty in this town.” Or how about this? I got this one from David Peterson. “Kids these days are lazy and rude and dangerous.”
Let’s go back to the shepherds. Why could they see what other people could not see? What gave them this depth perception so they could see God in a baby? Luke’s answer is very simple. They were told what to look for. That’s why they went to Bethlehem. The angel told them. Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
This is important. The shepherds saw what others could not see because they were told what to look for. So here’s my question for you: Have you been told what to look for? Can you still plead ignorance because no one has ever told you about Jesus? Are you going to walk around with your eyes closed pretending you cannot see? Jesus gave sight to the blind. Jesus also gave sight to those who were not blind but still could not see.
One reason we gather here every Sunday, even when Christmas fall on a Sunday, is because we all need to improve our vision. With our physical eyes, there’s a limit to what can be done. Eye glasses or contacts do wonders. So does eye surgery. But sometimes the eye doctors do all they can do and we still can’t see very well. Physically, that is.
But spiritually, there is unlimited room for us to improve our vision. We can learn to see what others cannot see. To see beneath the surface of things. To discern what is really there but is not at all obvious. To see the depth of things. To see in that baby in the manger Emmanuel, God with us.
The Gospel of Thomas is not part of the Bible. It was found in1945 in Egypt. There was a very old dump that archeologists were digging through. They found these manuscripts that date almost back to the time of Jesus. Some of it is inconsistent with what we know about Jesus from more reliable sources. But some of it sure sounds like the Jesus we meet in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Like this: Jesus is asked about the Kingdom of God and he says, “The Kingdom of God is all around you, and you do not see it.”
Back to the Von Senden study, about blind people who now could see. Not everyone was like that girl who preferred to walk around her house with her eyes closed. He told of one girl whose bandages were removed from her eyes, she could see for the first time in her life, and she was dazzled by the beauty of the world. The brightness and the color overwhelmed her.
She closed her eyes, but not to hide from all this beauty. It was just too much to take all this in all at once. She would close her eyes, and open them again. Over and over. Closing her eyes and then opening them. And every time she opened them, she would say the same thing: “O God, how beautiful!”
The shepherds heard the news, they went to see, and they said, “O God, how beautiful! . . . and they went away glorifying God for all they had seen.”
We thank you, God, for this day unlike any other. For this birthday of the One so unlike us and yet so like us. In Jesus we see you and we see also ourselves. And we see the incredible possibility that something of your nature might be a part of our nature. And that perhaps this Jesus, fully human, fully divine, might dwell in us and make us more what you, O God, want us to be. May Jesus, born this day, be born this day in us. Amen