This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer. I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.
While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone around. “Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread Had seized their troubled mind; “Glad tidings of great joy I bring To you and all mankind. “To you, in David’s town, this day Is born of David’s line A Savior, who is Christ the Lord, And this shall be the sign: “The heav’nly Babe you there shall find To human view displayed, All meanly wrapped in swathing bands, And in a manger laid.” Thus spake the seraph and forthwith Appeared a shining throng Of angels praising God on high, Who thus addressed their song: “All glory be to God on high, And to the Earth be peace; Good will henceforth from heav’n to men Begin and never cease!”
Words by Nahum Tate
Why the shepherds? Angels might have appeared to the rulers and priests of Israel, announcing the birth of their long-awaited Messiah, but they did not. Nor did they appear to the common citizens (and other visitors) in Bethlehem. We make much of the shepherds being lowly and humble, and that is true enough. But there were other poor and humble people throughout the land. And there were “important” people who waited to hear the news.
There is something about shepherds that is close to the heart of God. All the way back in Genesis– Abel was a shepherd. The early patriarchs– Abraham, Isaac, Jacob– were all shepherds. Moses, when God called him, was working as a shepherd. King David started as a shepherd, tending his father’s sheep, while his older brothers were serving in the army. The prophet Amos was a shepherd. Jesus used several parables about and allusions to shepherds and sheep as well. (See Matthew 18:10-14; John 10 among others.)
Shepherds are humble, yes, but there are other traits that I think are at work in the story of the Nativity– some important, and others incidental:
Shepherds watch. That seems pretty self-evident from songs and passages, but it’s also important. The shepherds weren’t watching for angels that night, but they were alert, combing the area for dangers, pitfalls, straying sheep, wandering predators…There is nothing in the Bible that says that the angels were invisible to anyone else in the neighborhood; only that the angel appeared to the shepherds and was joined by the hosts of heaven.
Shepherds must focus on others. Much is made of the “lowly” station of shepherds. But that is the nature of the job. A “Good” shepherd is one whose focus and efforts are directed at the sheep. He doesn’t “climb the ladder of success”, “toot his own horn”, “keep banker’s hours”– in fact the shepherds of the Nativity story were the “night shift”, tending the flocks when it was cold, dark, dangerous, and thankless!
Shepherds were familiar with “unconventional” birth. An announcement that Messiah was born in a stable and could be found wrapped in strips of cloth would come as a surprise to shepherds, but not as an impossibility or a cruel joke. Shepherds (anyone whose livelihood depends on the safe delivery of livestock) would understand and rejoice over new life, even in unexpectedly humble or unconventional circumstances.
Shepherds were often “left out” of ceremonies and celebrations, because of their frequent contact with blood and death. The angel’s announcement had special meaning in the inclusion of shepherds, which was to show that even those who had been deemed ritually unclean were to be included in the “Good news of Great Joy!”
The shepherds were “abiding” in the fields. These were not the temporary visitors thronging to Bethlehem for the census. They were not the patriarchs of great families living in walled compounds or great estates; neither were they awake in the middle of the night plotting, scheming, or creating havoc. They were humble, but they were faithfully doing their work.
This Advent season, may we consider the shepherds and learn to be watchful, other-focused, joyful, ready to accept the Good News, and faithful in all that we do and say in response to our Good Shepherd!
I heard the bells on Christmas day Their old familiar carols play; In music sweet the tones repeat, “There’s peace on earth, good will to men.” I thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along th’ unbroken song Of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor does He sleep, For Christ is here; His Spirit near Brings peace on earth, good will to men.” *When men repent and turn from sin The Prince of Peace then enters in, And grace imparts within their hearts His peace on earth, good will to men. O souls amid earth’s busy strife, The Word of God is light and life; Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice, Hail peace on earth, good will to men. Then happy, singing on your way, Your world will change from night to day; Your heart will feel the message real, Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.
Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season. Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal. Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht
The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War. When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one. (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.) As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas. As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here: https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm
Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching. “My life is a mess. I have suffered greatly. There is no Peace On Earth!” Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.
How can this be?
Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space. They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy and healing in their midst. “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good. “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled. God is Faithful. God’s word endures. God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”
Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child, to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound. Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens.
My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.
The hymn is a contrast of weary longing and hopeful prophecy. The promised Messiah has not yet arrived, but his coming is sure, and cause for great rejoicing.
The hymn is also a prayer– pleading for the coming of Messiah, even as it comforts with the reminder that he WILL come. And it reminds us of the power of prayer– not just the power of approaching Almighty God, but the power of acknowledging our longings, our needs, and our dependence on God. Even in our darkest hours, even in captivity and oppression, we can have hope in God’s timing and wisdom. He DOES see our struggle; he DOES care, and he WILL send hope and rescue.
But the song also points out a pitfall–in the first verse, the prayer is for Emmanuel to rescue Israel from Roman Occupation; to end its immediate plight of being politically and economically oppressed. There were many people who saw Messiah, heard him speak, even felt his touch, who rejected him because he did not do what they were expecting. There are many today who cannot believe in Jesus Christ because he doesn’t take away their current circumstances of pain and suffering.
In their narrow focus, people miss the greater miracle of what Messiah is all about. Jesus did not come to free us from temporary troubles and trials; to make us comfortably apathetic or arrogantly victorious over personal poverty or sickness. He came to free us to be able to overcome our circumstances to offer hope where there seems to be no hope. He came to show us that our circumstances don’t define us or cut us off from God’s love; that our past is not more powerful than His forgiveness and power to heal; that even suffering and oppression can be endured with joy, even as we work together to overcome them.
This season, as we sing this hymn, I pray that we would see the continuation of this prayer. Emmanuel HAS come– Jesus not only came and won the victory over sin and death on Calvary; he has commissioned US to be the bearers of the Good News. There are dark places in the world praying for hope and rescue to COME. Will we share the love of Christ in our own neighborhoods? When we bear the name of Christ, we should be on mission to rescue those who are captives, not of Rome, but of Sin and the tyranny of Death. So that we all can know the reason to Rejoice! Rejoice!
While shepherds kept their watching O’er silent flocks by night, Behold throughout the heavens There shone a holy light
Go, tell it on the mountain Over the hills and everywhere Go, tell it on the mountain That Jesus Christ is born.
The shepherds feared and trembled When lo above the earth Rang out the angel chorus That hailed our Savior’s birth;
Go, tell it on the mountain Over the hills and everywhere Go, tell it on the mountain That Jesus Christ is born.
Down in a lowly manger The humble Christ was born; And God sent out salvation That blessed Christmas morn.
When I was a seeker I sought both night and day I sought the Lord to help me And He showed me the way.
He made me a watchman Upon the city wall And If I am a Christian I am the least of all.
Go, tell it on the mountain Over the hills and everywhere Go, tell it on the mountain That Jesus Christ is born.
During the Christmas season, we often focus on giving. And it’s certainly appropriate. But there is another aspect of Christmas that sometimes gets overlooked– Telling.
Christ came to earth humbly, but he didn’t come secretly. Angels announced his arrival to the shepherds; stars aligned and shone brightly as a signal to the wise men. Prophets had foretold his coming for centuries. John the Baptist even went ahead of Jesus, baptizing and preparing his hearers for the good news yet to come. The earliest followers of Christ were eager to tell of his words, his deeds, and his glorious resurrection. Many lost their lives doing so.
If the birth of Christ was reason to fill the night sky with songs and wonders, reason enough to send angels and stars, prophets and messengers; what about the news of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension? Why do we allow this amazing news to sit on a dusty shelf, unopened and unshared? Or treat it like a secret, good news for only the few, the righteous?
We have the greatest news in all of history– more important than any political scandal, more amazing than the latest technology, more joyous than any other announcement imaginable. Emmanuel– God WITH US–He came, he lived, worked, spoke, laughed, shared, loved, cried, ate, slept, and died, WITH US. And he died and rose so that we could continue to live WITH HIM!
God didn’t send all the signs and wonders– he didn’t come into the world to be a guilty secret. And though there is still a risk involved in proclaiming the gospel, it is no less good, and no less NEWS now than it was nearly 2000 years ago. Let’s TELL it! SHOW it! POST it! SING it out!– Everywhere!
Father, Thank you for this wonderful news. Thank you for the Greatest Gift–Yourself. Give us hearts filled with joy and courage, and lips eager to share your grace and love with those we meet. Help us to be faithful messengers of that grace and love; transparent and true in word and deed. May every mountain and valley, forest, meadow, desert and ocean ring with the hope and glory of your nativity, your ministry, and your death and resurrection.
Angels we have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er the plains, And the mountains in reply Echoing their joyous strains.Refrain: Gloria, in excelsis Deo! Gloria, in excelsis Deo! Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong? What the gladsome tidings be Which inspire your heav’nly song? Come to Bethlehem and see Him Whose birth the angels sing; Come, adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn King. See Him in a manger laid, Whom the choirs of angels praise; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, While our hearts in love we raise.
This has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols to sing. I love the movement of the melodic line and the harmonies, especially when singing the angels’ chorus: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo! Gloria, in excelsis Deo!” (Glory to God in the Highest Heavens!)
Yet, if we think about it, the angels seem almost to be having a joke. There is something ironic about hosts of angels praising the glory of God in His highest Heaven, when they are announcing that He is, at that moment, a wailing, helpless infant, wrapped in rags and borrowing a feeding trough for his bed, miles from the warmth and comfort of a home of any kind, let alone the glory of His rightful throne.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 15 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.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
Luke 2:8-18 (NIV)
And this is how God chose to appear, and chooses to work– confounding the power of the powerful, the wisdom of the wise, and the goodness of the self-righteous. God does not glorify that which is already a spectacle. Instead he glorifies the lowly and unqualified things of the world by coming into them, working through them, and reshaping them for His use.
And so, may we have eyes, ears, and hands to work in the same way–to raise up, encourage, bless, and honor those who cannot yet see the Glory around them, the Glory God offers to share freely. May we be the host of God’s messengers to spread the Glorious news of Christ’s gift of life and salvation. May we be like the shepherds, jubilant in our acceptance of His great news. And may we be, like the babe himself–humble and kind–bringing Glory to the world around us, no matter how dark or unwelcoming it may appear. Remember, God himself is with us!
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. Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christians, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you; Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The Babe, the Son of Mary. So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh, Come peasant, king to own Him; The King of kings salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone Him. Raise, raise a song on high, The virgin sings her lullaby; Joy, joy for Christ is born, The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Words by William C. Dix
No other name in all history elicits such differing and intense responses. Jesus, the son of Mary Jesus, the Son of God Jesus, the Son of Man Jesus, the Son of David Jesus, the Christ Jesus, the Messiah
Who is this child– ruler of the universe, Laid in a feeding stall, In a simple stable, In a small town, In a captive land? Son of a carpenter (illegitimate, by some accounts), In the royal line of David (but so far removed as to be of no account).
Yet angel hosts sing “Gloria!” Kings and philosophers travel from distant lands for just a glimpse, Bringing priceless treasures and humbled hearts, While the beleaguered puppet king of a conquered people Prepares to destroy him.
Will he rise to take his place in Herod’s palace? Will he lead a revolt to free his people from Rome? Will he bring together rival factions among the priesthood? Will he … Die in agony, betrayed and scorned?
This, this is Christ the King; The Lamb of God. Savior and Sacrifice. “The Silent Word”, Pleading, Healing, Bleeding, Ascending. Even in his humble life and Ignominious death He rose to change the world– Stopping time and dividing it into All that came before and All that has happened since.
This is Christ the King Bruised for our sins, Betrayed by our selfishness Cheapened by our compromise and corruption.
Bring him incense, gold, and myrrh; He is more than our tinsel, jingle bells, and platinum charge cards. He is the King– He is a Babe; the son of Mary.
1. O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
2. For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the king, and peace to all on earth!
3. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
4. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; o come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Words by Phillips Brooks
Micah 5:2 English Standard Version (ESV) 2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
God’s ways are not our ways. I grew up in a tiny village in Michigan, and when we used to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I always imagined a similarly tiny town, draped in silence in the dead of night, sleeping right through the most glorious and stunning event in history. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the same thing happening in my sleepy village– Christ could have come to any of a dozen sway-backed sheds or garages around town without fanfare as hundreds of strangers crammed into local houses and public buildings, eager to be done with a bizarre census that led them back to where their ancestors once lived. There is nothing special about my hometown to anyone but those of us who grew up there.
Bethlehem was just such a small town. Prophecy that a king would arise from such a backwater village was mostly ignored. Four hundred years had passed since the last mention of Bethlehem by God or any of His prophets. No one expected a miracle there, just as no one would expect a miracle in our little town today.
We expect big things to happen in big cities– bustling, surging, modern, energy-filled cities. This is where grand events are held– political rallies, sold-out concerts, championship sporting events, groundbreaking new developments in business and medicine, coronations and ceremonies. But God often works in the quiet spaces and unexpected places of our world and in our lives. He comes softly and silently into the dark corners and forgotten nooks filling them with His glory.
And He gives us the privilege of sharing in this miracle– wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever our circumstances. Christ did not spend most of His life on earth in the halls of power or the centers of commerce. He didn’t “tour” the university circuit giving lectures, or fill great auditoriums while His image was splashed across a Jumbo-tron. He walked humbly from small village to small town, spreading truth and love and drawing people to Himself, that they might believe and find true life. He modeled how we can extend His grace– starting with those in our own small towns or neighborhoods–with simple acts and earnest prayers like the ones in this song: “Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.” “Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
1 In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
2 Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
3 Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
4 What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
United Methodist Hymnal, 1989
I love this Christmas Hymn, though it creates a picture that is likely very false. Historically, we have no reason to believe that Jesus’ birth occurred on the 25th of December, or even in the winter at all. And even if it was December, it is very unlikely that the Middle-Eastern countryside was experiencing frosty moaning winds or icy waters on the night of Christ’s birth. In addition to Mary, the Bible tells us of others who came to worship that night– the shepherds in the nearby hills. The wise men likely came days, weeks, or even months later to bring their gifts. And Joseph would certainly have been there, as well.
The song is still lovely, and the last verse is the key. Christ poured out all that He was; taking on the form of a helpless baby, He lived among those who rejected and mocked Him. He served those whom He had created, healing their wounds, forgiving their sins, providing for their eternal redemption. He died, betrayed and despised by His own chosen people, and dismissed by the rulers and authorities of the day. He never owned a home, built monuments, carved his name in stone, or wrote books to preserve his legacy. He had no dynasty or even children to carry on his name; at the time of his death, all his friends and followers had abandoned him– all but one disciple and his mother. Yet his birth (the actual date of which has been obscured by history) is synonymous with generous gifting, rejoicing, singing, worship, and renewed hope. So what could any of us possibly give that could even begin to match what His life, death, and resurrection gave us?
He asks for only one thing– everything we have: all the failures, mistakes, good intentions, bad choices, selfish desires, and hurts of the past–and in return, He gives us everything beyond our wildest imaginations: eternity with Him; all the riches of His Glory; all His holiness and majesty imputed to us; peace with Him; rest and restoration in Him; and His Spirit to guide and sustain us!
The bleakness of midwinter may not have been the physical setting of Christ’s birth, but it represents the spiritual setting of our lives without Him. In that sense, Christ comes in the bleak midwinter of our rebellion, our despair, and our isolation, and offers to give us everlasting light, hope, peace, and joy!
That’s worth celebrating every day throughout eternity!
Snow has been falling in earnest lately in our area– sometimes wet and heavy blobs, unsure of their status as liquid or solid; other times cold and wispy flakes, hovering and swirling in the frosty air, shimmering as they catch the light of street lamps, headlights, and even moonlight. Snow has coated limbs and branches of trees, and painted iron fences and rooftops white against the leaden skies.
We learn as children that each flake of snow is unique– no two are alike among all the hundreds of millions of flakes that fall. And just so, we are also taught, no two people are exactly alike. Each of us is unique.
God himself underscores this analogy in the book of Job, when He describes rain, dew, frost, and ice:
28 “Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? 29 From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven? 30 The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
Job 38:28-30 (ESV)
Just as each drop of water, each snow flake, each bit of frost is unique, so are we. And so should be our prayers–millions of voices and hearts raised to our Father in praise, petition, repentance, supplication, worship, adoration–trembling or triumphant– each as unique in our needs and utterances as the beautiful snowflakes dancing and skittering around in the moonlight. No two of us are alike, yet together we fill the empty night with wonder and give honor to our creator by being who we were created to be.
As we pray today, let us remember to be grateful for our uniqueness– celebrate God’s artistry by being fully ourselves and celebrating the uniqueness of the others around us.