In those days, Rome was strong, and young in its strength. It had a ruler so powerful he was called a living God, king of kings, and prince of peace. He was called the Emperor Augustus, and he was Emperor of all the world we knew.
His Legions, each five thousand strong, tramped the straight roads of empire, leveling high places and raising the low before them, arrow-straight through the heart of the nations, ruling them all and binding them all, in the darkness of imperial power. He closed his fist in his might, his boots trod across the world.
And he made peace: the peace of Rome, the quiet of empire, the velvet night of unchallengeable authority.
There was no questioning who was in charge… of this world that we knew.
Who were we?
We were just ordinary workingmen trying to make a living – shepherds, staying out in the fields all night, tending the sheep, guarding the flock, keeping watch.
We had seen a lot of strange things, at night, out in the fields. We had our share of bear stories, wolf stories; we'd fought lions.
But we had never seen anything like this. Right in the middle of an ordinary night, right in the middle of an ordinary job, something broke through from a realm beyond our sight.
A choir of heavenly messengers filled our eyes. Unto you, they sang - unto you!
Salvation comes, the king is born, and God has fulfilled his promise. Go and see: go into the town and look for a baby, an ordinary baby, all wrapped up and ready for bed, but sleeping in a manger – that's him.
That BABY is God incarnate: a baby lying in a manger, gently breathing, his folks standing by. This is the sign of God that everyone has been waiting for. This is the Messiah, the King of Kings, the Son of David, Christ Almighty – don't you want to tell somebody about it?
We're no angels. We're just shepherds, working the night shift on a far hillside. The mother herself saw no angels tonight, only us -- bringing the message, confirming what she knew in her heart, that today, in the City of David, is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
He had come, the Savior, the Messiah we were looking for – but not as we were looking. He came to us as a helpless infant, a baby: the hope of the world wrapped in swaddling cloths.
And this child, born to marginal people in a marginal town in a marginal province on the distant edge of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, quietly moved to the center of life. Humble and obedient, Joseph and Mary became more exalted than Herod had ever been; and their son, their Son, was in his infancy more powerful – though invisible in his majesty – than any Caesar would ever become.
Somehow, through this child, peace and righteousness and justice began to work their way in the world, the world that – after all – God, not Herod, had made. And into God’s world he sent his own Son, who became for us the Bread of Life.
We were ordinary workingmen, leading a workingman’s life. Into the very fields where the sheep lay came the extraordinary messengers, bearing glad tidings.
“On earth peace, good will toward men!”
Our lives were changed. Even after, later that night, as we trudged back up the frosty hill-paths to our flocks, we knew that the dawn that was breaking that morning was a new day indeed, for us, for our people, and for the whole world.
How then on an ordinary day are you to recognize the Christ Child? How is he born in your life – in your town?
You go about your business in your ordinary way – and yet: something extraordinary is happening even now, in your heart, in your life, in your will.
Christ is being born. God has sent his Redeemer to you, to establish the way of peace, to bring righteousness and peace to the world he has made, to the person he has made, to you.
Unto you is born this day a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping, whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping? This, this, is Christ the King; whom shepherds guard and angels sing: haste, haste, to bring him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary!
Fred B. Craddock et al., Preaching through the Christian Year (Trinity Press International)
Herbert O'Driscoll, The Word Today (Anglican Book Centre)
Hugh Keyte & Andrew Parrott, eds., The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford, 1993) No. 53.