My alarm went off just before 6:30 a.m. on the final day of serving as a leader for Big Beach Weekend, a summer youth retreat in Harvey Cedars, NJ. Four (amazing!) girls and I got out from the comfort of our bunks, tiptoed down the hall, and into the dusk to walk to the beach so we could watch the sunrise. Quickly, we realized this was no ordinary sunrise. The sky was bursting between the quaint homes of this little town. We were struck with a bolt of energy and began to run towards the horizon, not wanting to miss a second of the sun rising above the Atlantic. Out of breath, with sand between our toes, we stood still with eyes wide open, awestruck by the masterpiece finally before us.
In thinking back to that experience, I am left to wonder how creation affected the wise men on the days surrounding Jesus’ birth. These men “saw his star when it rose and [went] to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). God used His creation to guide them on a journey, to draw them closer to the presence of His Son. It was with intentional haste that they followed it “until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (2:9-10). All they could do upon their arrival was to merely embrace what they witnessed, to fall to the ground in praiseful posture.
Oftentimes, I feel God’s presence through a sunrise like the one pictured, a sunset, a starry night. Perhaps the star the wise men followed left them in amazement by its simple, impactful purpose. Perhaps the sunrise on the day of Jesus’ birth was a watercolor of purples, pinks, and yellows to demonstrate the powerful beauty of the newborn King; or perhaps it had hues of gray that resembled a picture of Jesus’ humble life. Perhaps Mary and Joseph took a moment to be still, to forever remember this sunrise as the one that marked Jesus’ birth and a world forever-changed.
To witness the most spectacular sunrise with those four special girls still leaves me breathless and in prayerful praise. How much more would those who were part of Jesus’ first days on earth have been struck by the splendor of what God was doing around them—watching the sun rise and set in the little town of Bethlehem where the Savior of the world was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12)?
My hope is that we all can take a moment this Christmas to consider how incredible it is that God would use His creation to draw us, and those before us, near to Him; that it could serve to guide us towards Him with anticipatory joy; that just a glimpse of heaven on earth could be so enthralling we might feel the need to run towards it, just to be that much closer to Him.
Luke 2: 10 – “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy . . .”
It was dark. The sheep were doing whatever it is that sheep do once night falls. The shepherds were keeping a watchful for eye for any signs of danger, as shepherds had done in this region for centuries. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared them. The glory of the Lord illuminated the area around them. Think about it. In the dark shadows of the night, the invisible suddenly becomes visible. The veil that separates heaven and earth is pulled back and they see something few mortals have ever seen. There was nothing in their collective experience that would have prepared them to make sense out what was happening. In the face of this unexpected and supernatural occurrence they were understandably overcome with fear.
How comforting it must have been that the angel’s first words were, “Fear not!”. It was exactly what they needed to hear to stop them in their tracks, calm their hearts and keep them from running. There must be something viscerally terrifying about an encounter like this, because these were also the first words uttered to Zechariah when the angel appeared to him. He spoke these words because he knew something neither the shepherds nor Zechariah knew. Somewhere on the eastern frontier a boy was born who would be their Savior!
Life can be terrifying. It’s full of uncertainty. Bad things happen to people we love and care about. We are mugged by circumstances that are beyond our control. People we count on disappoint us, even betray us. It’s easy to be overcome by fears from within and by fears from without. After all, the world is a very dangerous place and there is no lack of evidence to belie our concerns. It’s in these moments that I need to hear the words of the Angel of the Lord echoing in my heart and mind saying, “Fear not! … For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The birth of a boy in a manger in the city of Bethlehem announced to the shepherds the good news concerning the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. The arrival of the One who brings true healing, renewal and peace has come to pass. Expectation has given way to fulfillment. As we celebrate Advent, all the scenes and signs of the season are pointers to this new reality. The true King of the world has come! He is the one will rescue us from the curse of sin and death. And if we are His, we have nothing to fear. May we hear the voice of the Spirit shouting those words, “Fear not!” in the face of all our fears.
As I reflect on the narrative of the birth of our Savior, one of the ironies that can be clearly seen is the contrast between the heavenly and earthly response to Christ’s birth. When Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, no regard is given to them. They do not have great wealth, power or fame, in fact all they wanted was a room in the Inn, yet were given shelter in a stable most likely filled with livestock. There seemed no special care or thought given for this couple and for this young pregnant girl. Yet how radically different were things in the heavenly realm. In sharp contrast to the little notice given to Jesus’ birth on earth we see an entire army of angels appear to a group of shepherds and the entire heavenly host broke into song and shouted their praise and adoration for this precious one’s birth. A heavenly party and celebration had begun for the promised one had come. The heavenly realm had broken into our time and space as the angels sang before the shephereds and as our God humbled himself and entered our world in the form of this tiny babe.
Martin Luther, in the 16th century observed this same irony:
But what happens in heaven concerning this birth? As much as it is despised on earth, so much and a thousand times more is it honored in heaven. If an angel from heaven came and praised you and your work, would you not regard it of greater value than all the praise and honor the world could give you, and for which you would be willing to bear the greatest humility and reproach? What exalted honor is that when all the angels in heaven can not restrain themselves from breaking out in rejoicing, so that even poor shepherds in the fields hear them preach, praise God, sing and pour out their joy without measure? Were not all joy and honor realized at Bethlehem, yes, all joy and honor experienced by all the kings and nobles on earth, to be regarded as only dross and abomination, of which no one likes to think, when compared with the joy and glory here displayed?
Martin Luther, 1521
So let us remember that the very one who the heavens rejoiced over has taken residence in his people. That in the cold, dark and what may at times seem hopeless experience of life on this earth our Emmanuel is here. Rejoice!