You may not be a shepherd, but you do have your own watch to keep: your own flock to guard and protect, to feed and care for, and your own field in which to abide. You have the duties of your office, the responsibilities of your particular station in life. Consider your place in the world according to God’s commandments, and you will know where you should be found, what you should be doing, and what you should not. You will know the sheep of the Good Shepherd whom you are given to love and to serve.
Whether you work the day shift or at night; whether evenings and weekends, or on call 24/7, you live and work in the midst of deep darkness. It is the darkness of sin and death, of sickness and sadness, of violence and hate, bullies and hazing; the pitch black darkness of unbelief and idolatry, ungodliness and worldly desire.
Sometimes the darkness looms and grows and thickens to the point that it threatens to swallow you up completely — like a living, breathing monster, some kind of wild beast, a roaring lion, seeking to devour you. Left alone and afraid in the darkness, unable to see which way to turn, neither do you see any hope for tomorrow. In the dead of the night, when you cannot sleep, or when your sleep is assailed with nightmares, it does not appear that the sun will ever shine on you again.
And then, at other times, it might seem as though the darkness is simply overcome by the bright lights of man. Electricity is just one of many good gifts of God that we turn into an idol of self-sufficiency. Who needs the sun, when you can simply flip a switch? You can fill your house with light at any hour of the day or night. You can brighten your whole block with your colorful display of Christmas lights. You can travel anywhere, anytime, purchase anything you want around the clock, and find out anything you want to know in a moment.
But it’s all a charade. It’s not really day, no matter how many watts you burn. You can hide from the darkness and pretend, or cover it up with bright and shiny things; you can set your clocks forward in the spring, and turn them back in the fall, but the night still descends, and thick darkness covers you.
Really, though, I’m not speaking so much about the natural darkness that comes with the setting of the sun at the end of each day. That is part of the Lord’s good creation, with which He also gives to His beloved sleep. Or so He intends and desires to do and to give, though you flee from His gentle darkness, from His peace and rest, to burn your candles at both ends in pursuit of your own good and evil. And that is so around the clock.
The darkest hours ain’t always at night. Nor is the darkness only on the outside, surrounding you. There is a deeper, darker darkness within you, gnawing away and eating you up from the inside-out. Not the natural darkness of God’s creation, but the native darkness of your fallen old man, the darkness of your heart and mind, beclouded by sin, ignorant of God, tempted to wickedness and evil on the one hand, but then also accused, ashamed, and afraid, on the other hand.
This is the darkness that blackens your thoughts and feelings, and makes it difficult, or, rather, impossible, for you to see or perceive anything clearly, even at high noon. You live, as it were, always at night, always in the dark. You tend your sheep, yes, but like a hireling; you despise and resent them, and grumble and complain. You run away and hide, on the inside at least, when push comes to shove. You work without joy, because you have to, in order to make ends meet, and you count the hours, the days, the weeks and years until you’re done.
When you take care of the sheep, only for the sake of taking care of yourself, then the darkness emerges from within you in the form of self-preservation and self-protection, and it descends upon you in the form of fear, desperation, and finally despair.
That is the darkness which would eventually consume you altogether, and bring you into the long dark night of death and the grave.
Except that, now, the true Light has come. The same true God who caused the Light to shine out of the darkness in the beginning, has caused the Light of His Glory to shine upon you by His grace. He’s doing it right now, as a matter of fact, in the middle of this night, in the midst of all the darkness around you. As always, it is by and with His Word that His Light shines. His Word is the Light, which is preached to you, that you might see God and have life in Him.
This Light of the revelation of the Glory of God is scary in its own way at times. When you’ve been in the dark for so long, well, you know how it is; the light hurts your eyes. And when you’ve been hiding away in the darkness, doing what you shouldn’t and neglecting what you should, then having the lights suddenly flipped on might well freak you out and make you sore afraid.
The Light first of all exposes the deeds of darkness, and it makes clear that you have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.
At other times — perhaps even most of the time — although your Light has come, and the grace of God has appeared, it may seem as though it were lost and overcome by thick clouds and long dark shadows. The irony and paradox of the Cross, which is the Hour of God’s great Glory in Christ Jesus, is that it appears completely otherwise. We do make crosses out of burnished metal, and we make them beautiful, as best we can, in order to confess the mysterious and hidden truth of the matter. But in this present age, the Cross of Christ is not bright and shiny; it is dark and foreboding. His Cross is a kind of black light, I suppose.
So, as it is the Light of the Cross that shines upon you in the Word of Christ, your life on earth is not all blue skies and sunshine, but overcast and overshadowed, maybe even dark and cold and rainy. The days are short, your nights are long. And when all the excitement and celebration of Christmas has come and gone, the presents have been opened and put away, the decorations taken down, and even the leftovers have all been eaten, there will still be your job to do, your studies to resume, and either the frenzy or the boredom, the loneliness or chaos of your life.
For some of you, the fear that nothing will ever change or get any better may be the greatest fear and deepest dread of all.
But to each and all of you I say, Fear not. For right here, right now, I bring to you good news of great joy. This is a Word of Peace, not only for shepherds “once upon a time,” but for all people, and so also for you. These glad tidings are preached to you, as you keep your watch, and tend your sheep, and abide in your field, by night as by day. This message rings out to the ends of the earth, and so also here it is spoken and heard, confessed, prayed and sung. It is proclaimed for you, first of all, but in such a way that you, too, are able to speak it and sing it.
This Word is full of great joy, because it meets your deepest needs, delivers you from death, and gives you life with God. It is comfort and peace. It is Light in the darkness. It is rescue and relief, protection from danger, tender care, and free salvation.
Because it is unto you that a Savior has been born. He is your Savior, and so He comes for you here, where you are. He is born “in the same country,” that is to say, not Palestine per se, nor the U.S.A. Neither Canada, El Salvador or Kenya. But all of the above, in the same country and commerce in which you live and work; the world of men, of flesh and blood, of sunshine and rain, of eating and drinking, waking and sleeping. He has been born for you into all of that.
He has come, not simply to be with you and keep you company as you go about your days and nights, but to be your Savior — to save you from all that darkens your world, and from all that brings death into your life. He comes to do it by His Cross, by submitting Himself to the darkness of death and the grave, allowing Himself to be swallowed up by them — but then He is the One who triumphs and swallows them up, once and for all. The darkness does not overcome Him — indeed, it cannot — and so it is dispersed by Him Who is the Light. Death and the grave cannot hold Him, but death is defeated by His death; so has He risen from the grave, and He shall never die again.
As death no longer has any lordship over Him, neither shall it be allowed to rule over you. For your Savior, Christ Jesus — born into the House and Lineage of David, a Man after His Father’s heart — He is your Shepherd and your King.
Even a little child knows that a Shepherd guards and protects His flock from danger, and also feeds and cares for His sheep, leading them into good green pastures and alongside cool clear waters. That is what your Shepherd does for you, so that you have life, and death is kept at bay.
Because He is also your King, the governments rests fully upon His shoulders, and not upon you. He is not a tyrant, nor a cruel dictator, but an “everlasting Father” for His people. As Dr. Luther describes a king as a father of his country, so is Jesus a fatherly King to you and all His people. So it is, again, that He feeds you and clothes you, shelters and protects you, teaches you and trains you, in body and soul. All by His grace, without any merit or worthiness in you, but with fatherly divine goodness and mercy.
The government of King Jesus is the true “welfare state.” He does not take your wealth to spread it around and share with others. He does not take a census of the people, in order to tax the world. But He distributes His own wealth to you and all your fellow citizens of His Kingdom, so that you and your neighbor are well supplied and well able to love and serve and care for each other with the good gifts of your King.
But, see then how it is: You are saved by Him, and now you live by His grace and mercy, and you have Peace in the Light of His Gospel. For He is the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed, and having been anointed by the Spirit of His Father in His Body of flesh and blood, He pours out the Holy Spirit upon you through His forgiving of all your sins. Indeed, He is the Lord Himself — the almighty and eternal Son of God, begotten of the Father from all eternity — but He has also become true Man, a human being like yourself, by His conception and birth of St. Mary. In Him, God and Man are perfectly and permanently united. So also, in Him, you are united with God in perfect Peace.
Here, then, let me tell you where and how to find Him. To worship Him, yes, in His own flesh with your whole self, body and soul, heart and mind, words and actions. But to worship and adore Him, in the first place, by hearing His Word and receiving His good gifts — trusting Him, and living by His grace. And then also to return thanks, to bend your knee and lift up your voice, and to love and serve your neighbor in the name of your King.
You will find Him in the city of David, that is, Bethlehem, which is the “House of Bread.” Not by accident or coincidence is your Savior found in such a House, for He is the true and living Bread from heaven. But His Bethlehem is not far away from you, on the other side of the planet. It is found, and He is found, wherever His Church is gathered by and for the preaching of His Gospel and the giving of His Body in remembrance of Him. The household and family of His Church, in which that Bread is administered with His Word, is where you will find the Son of David.
He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, in anticipation of the clothes that will wrap and swaddle His Body when He is taken down from the Cross and buried. Because He wraps Himself in your frailty and weakness, in your fallen-ness, in your mortality and death. But so, again, does He burst the bonds of sin and death, and set you free. Thus, the swaddling clothes of His humble nativity, and of His tomb, are a sign of His Victory over death and the grave, as well as the means by which He wraps Himself up to give Himself to you (under His Tree). Thus, He is wrapped and swaddled now upon the Altar, in the Cup and on the Plate, reverently adorned with linens recalling both His burial and His Resurrection from the dead.
If you would find Him, find Him here at His Altar. If the wood of the manger has given way to the wood of the Cross, so is the Cross set before you in the wood of this Altar. And it is still a manger of sorts, that is, a feeding trough, from which you eat and drink. Here is where His sheep are fed, with the Food and Drink that are His own holy Body and His own most precious Blood.
Little wonder, then, that angels and archangels and all the host of heaven are gathered here with you, round about, and join with you in praising God. For wherever the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, are found, there all of heaven takes notice, pays devout attention, and sings with such great joy and gladness to the glory, honor, thanks and praise of the Holy Triune God. All saints and angels, in heaven and on earth, rejoice, give thanks, and sing, because the Lord our God has become Man, and has saved the sons of men for the life everlasting.
The same Lord God in mercy sends His messengers to you, to shepherd you as His dear sheep by the preaching and teaching of His Word, in order to bring you these glad tidings: which are for you.
Do keep these things, as St. Mary did, and ponder them daily (ponder them at night, too) in your heart and mind. Savor these glad tidings in your words and actions. For this Word of Christ is the Light that disperses the gloom and scatters the darkness. So it does for you, as you hear it and remember it; and so it does for your neighbor, as you also speak it and share it with those you encounter.
With this Word, and by this Light, return to your own field, to your own flock, with thanksgiving to God, and at Peace, in the sure and certain hope of Christ. His Incarnation and His Birth, His Cross and Resurrection, have already changed everything for the better.
Though it is still dark, and the night seems to reign without ending, in truth, everything is — and ever shall be — just as it has been told to you. Your Light has come in the flesh of Christ Jesus, and the Grace of God has appeared in the preaching of His Gospel. The eternal Day has already dawned in the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, so that you who are redeemed by His Cross shall also rise and live forever in His Light.
What your eyes have not yet seen — what your heart cannot yet feel or comprehend, and your mind cannot yet picture or imagine — shall at last appear, suddenly bursting into the midst of this long dark night. As surely as the Gospel is here preached — and your sins are all forgiven by that Word of the Gospel — and the Sacrament is given to you in this present age — so surely does your dear Lord come to you, and His Glory shines upon you, and surely He will also bring you home with Himself, rejoicing. Then there shall be no more night forever, but only the Light of your great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, evermore and evermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.