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.
But whether you work the day shift or at night, evenings and weekends, or on call 24/7, you live and work in the midst of a deep darkness. It is the darkness of sin and death, of sickness and sadness, of violence and hate. The pitch black darkness of unbelief, idolatry, ungodliness, and lust.
Sometimes the darkness looms and grows and thickens to the point that it threatens to swallow you up completely. 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. No matter how many lights you turn on, no matter how many watts you burn, the darkness crowds upon you, and you can’t turn back the night.
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. Indeed, the darkest hours aren’t always at night. Nor is the darkness only on the outside, surrounding you. There is a deeper darkness within you, gnawing away and eating you up from the inside-out. It is 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.
That is the darkness that blackens your thoughts and feelings and makes it 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 do your job and tend your sheep, but you do it like a hireling; you despise and resent the flock, you 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 the years until you can finally be done with it all.
When you care for the sheep with no other goal than caring for yourself and meeting your needs, then the darkness emerges from within you in the form of self-preservation and self-protection, and it descends upon your heart and mind 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 and eternal damnation.
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 in this fallen world. As always, it is by and with His Word that His Light shines for you. 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. When you’ve been in the dark for so long, you know how it is; the light hurts your eyes. And when you’ve been hiding in the darkness, doing what you should not and neglecting what you should, then having the lights suddenly flipped on might well freak you out and make you sore afraid. For the Light exposes the deeds of darkness and makes it clear that you have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.
Then again, when you’re lost in the dark and looking for the light, it can seem like the Light of the Lord has been overcome by thick clouds and long shadows. For the irony and paradox of the Cross, which is the Hour of God’s Glory in Christ Jesus, is that it appears completely otherwise.
Because 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 the holidays have 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.
And the prospect that nothing will ever change or get any better may be your greatest fear 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, to be sure, but in such a way that you are also able to speak it and sing it for others.
This Word of the Gospel 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.
It is unto you that a Savior has been born. He is your Savior, and so He comes for you here and now, right 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, Honduras, Taiwan or Tanzania. But all of the above, in the same country and commerce where 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 He has risen, 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 government 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. That is to say, again, that He feeds and clothes you, shelters and protects you, teaches and trains you. All of this by His grace, without any merit or worthiness in you, but with fatherly divine goodness and mercy.
King Jesus does not take a census of the people in order to tax the world. 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 able to love and serve and care for each other with the good gifts of your King.
So consider 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.
Come, then, avail yourself of these good things. Seek and find your Savior in the place where He directs you to go; so that you might worship and adore Him, in the first place by hearing His Word and receiving His good gifts; and that you should then also return thanks, bend your knee and lift up your voice, and love and serve your neighbor in the Name and for the sake of your true King.
You find Him in the city of David, that is, in Bethlehem, 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, that is where you 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. For He wraps Himself in your frailty and weakness, in your fallenness, in your mortality and death. But so does He also burst the bonds of sin and death and set you free. The swaddling clothes of His humble nativity and of His tomb are a sign of His Victory over death and the grave, which He has accomplished for you and for all, that He might wrap Himself up and give Himself to you under the Tree of His Cross.
So is He wrapped and swaddled now upon the Altar of His Church, in the Cup and on the Plate, reverently adorned with linens recalling both His burial and His Resurrection from the dead.
If you want to find Him, do so 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 and join with you in praising God. For wherever the Body and Blood of the incarnate Son of God are found, there all of heaven takes notice, pays devout attention, and sings with great joy and gladness to the glory, honor, thanks, and praise of the Holy Triune God. All the saints and holy angels in heaven and on earth rejoice, give thanks, and sing, because the Lord our God has become Man, and He has saved the sons of men for the resurrection and 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.
Do keep these things, as St. Mary did, and ponder them both day and night 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 and your own flock with thanksgiving to God, and be 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.
Although it is still dark in this perishing world, and the night seems to reign without ending, in truth everything is 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 Jesus from the dead, and as you are redeemed by His Cross, so shall you also rise and live forever in His Light.
What your eyes have not yet seen shall at last appear, suddenly bursting into the midst of this long dark night. As surely as the Gospel is here preached and the Sacrament administered for the forgiveness of your sins, so surely does your Savior come to you, and His Glory shines upon you, and so surely will He bring you home rejoicing. Then there shall be no more night anymore at all, but only the Light of the Word made Flesh, for evermore and evermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.