This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The shepherds watch as the angels utter their last word. The divine announcement has been made. Slowly, the angels fade into the heavens, giving way to the night sky. Serenading angels one moment, deafening silence the next. The minds of these shepherds can’t possibly process the magnitude of this encounter. Like a professional athlete who’s asked to explain his emotions after winning a championship, these shepherds have no words. Just silence.
Finally, someone speaks up.
The answer is unanimous. The next step is Bethlehem. How could they witness angels singing, proclaiming joy and peace, declaring the arrival of a Savior, and not see the child? So, they take off. Do they leave out of curiosity or a true desire to lay eyes on Immanuel? Who knows. Does it really matter?
This is no small step, however. Every step these shepherds take towards Bethlehem is a step away from their livelihood. Shepherds watch their sheep at night because sheep are weak, vulnerable animals. They can’t defend themselves. And, particularly at night, sheep are susceptible to attack from wolves and such.
Allow this to marinate. For these shepherds, traveling to Bethlehem meant abandoning their livelihood and their only source of income. How irresponsible, right? I mean, the angels mention something about a sign, but they don’t command the shepherds to leave their sheep. Why not wait for the next break or vacation. Why abandon everything now, without discussion or debate? Seems reckless and irresponsible.
But these shepherds realize an important truth about Jesus. Receiving God’s promises costs something. Could these shepherds remain in the fields? Sure. There’s no ultimatum from God.
That’s not how God rolls. Ultimatums are connected to fear. God is love. Love doesn’t coerce or manipulate. God, instead, allows the shepherds to choose. This is the beauty of grace. It’s a choice. Always.
But the shepherds’ decision reveals something important about the nature of transformation. Simply hearing the gospel won’t cut it. To truly experience Christ requires sacrifice. You must be willing to go on a journey of faith and trust, a journey that is uncertain and uncomfortable and risky. If you look at the story, notice when the shepherds praise and worship God. It’s after seeing the Messiah, not before. Transformation comes through experience as the result of a journey, not powerful sermons or emotional highs.
The church has told people they can experience Christ with little or no sacrifice. Just respond to this message. Just show up for worship every week, maybe volunteer a time or two.
But you don’t really have to leave the sheep in the fields. You don’t have to give up anything. This is the gospel of commercialization and cultural relevance. It’s not the gospel of Jesus. Following Jesus costs something, everything.
Hearing the gospel is merely an entry point to Jesus, however, not the end goal. A sermon will hardly transform you.
You can settle for sermons and Bible studies and such. You can go to church every Sunday and call that following Jesus. You can stay in the fields, if that’s all you desire. God won’t be upset. He won’t smite you (what does that even mean?). But you won’t find deep, meaningful Life there, in the fields, clinging to comfort and the status quo. You won’t be transformed until you journey to Bethlehem and experience Jesus yourself. Advent confronts conventional wisdom.
The Incarnation sends a scandalous message, particularly to those who feast on the fruits of a privileged life. Jesus is here, among us. He’s here right now – Abundant Life. We can experience true joy and peace in this very moment. But we must leave the sheep in the fields.
You can’t go on thinking the same old way and doing the same old thing and expect to find Abundant Life.
Grace and peace, friends.
Have you settled for the fields of comfort?
Father, I confess that I often settle for a life in the fields, with all its false securities, instead of experiencing Jesus. I want to be transformed. Give me courage. Give me faith. Amen!