Preached at St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Luke 2:8-9
Many years ago the author Annie Dillard wrote a collection of essays on nature that she called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one of the essays she writes of an experience of seeing as if for the first time. “One day,” she writes, “I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.”
“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
Annie Dillard’s experience of “the tree with the lights in it” is, I imagine, in a similar category to what was experienced by the shepherds on that holy night so many centuries ago.
They were out in the fields. Had they lived in the city, they might have known about the decrees of Emperor Augustus, and of the census being taken, and of the towns so full of pilgrims that there was no room in any inn. But they lived in the fields, out in the country. Not knowing the goings-on in the urban areas wouldn’t have bothered them, I don’t think. They knew their Scriptures: Nothing good ever came from a city. Wretched places, they are, full of scum and villainy. Better to stay in your own fields.
And in the fields, they kept watch. Not over the skies, mind you, but over the earth, and over the things of the earth, over the living, breathing creatures that were entrusted to their care. This was enough to occupy them, to fill their days and to fill their nights and to almost – almost – fill their bellies. It was certainly enough to fill their eyes. Or so they thought.
And then it happened. Then, Luke tells us, then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
They suddenly saw it, saw everything, as if for the first time: The skies with the lights in them, the fields with the lights in them, even the sheep with the lights in them. There were no words to make sense of this. Only the words that seemed to well up from inside them like tears filling your eyes, words they couldn’t have made up if they tried: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
A moment of revelation that came suddenly out of the everyday, the everynight, one moment when they saw clearly, as if for the first time, when they heard clearly, as if for the first time.
And then they were on the move, swept along by the moment toward the city, the place out of which nothing good could come. Before they could change their minds they found themselves on the road, on a doorstep, on their knees.
There he was: The child. He shone like any other child, really, like any other person when the lights are shining through them. Legs kicking, arms waving, body wriggling, and in the center of it all, the eyes. The lights shining in his eyes. I imagine the shepherds with Annie Dillard’s words in their mouths: It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen.
For a moment they stayed there, together, strangers and friends, gathered together as they were, most improbably, most unpredictably. Two or three were already finding themselves gathered in his Name, gathered around a place meant for food: a manger, a feeding trough, a table for creatures of the earth. A motley crew it was, strangers and friends, shepherds and carpenters, people of the fields and people of the streets, on very different journeys, all mixed up together, and all drawn together by this child who was making the world shine with light.
What could it all mean? I don’t imagine that at that moment the shepherds had the slightest idea. The words washed over them, announcing the new thing that had begun with this birth, that this child was somehow a king, that this child would somehow overthrow the world as it was, that this child would come out of an unexpected place to turn the world upside down, putting mangers and tables at the center and throwing imperial decrees overboard. They heard all of this, and no doubt the words already began to do their work.
But on this night there was no sense in making sense of it. On this night, I imagine, the shepherds were simply overwhelmed with the giddy wonder of seeing the world with the lights in it, lit up by the child with the lights in him. They had been their whole lives bells, and never knew it until at that moment they were lifted and struck.
“When they saw this, they made known what had been told them.” Their voices rang like bells through the night. I imagine them running through the dusty streets, shaking the hands of every person they met, like Ebenezer Scrooge after the holy ghosts helped him to see his life in a new light. “Merry Christmas!” said Scrooge, and I imagine that whatever the shepherds said it probably made about as much sense as that.
And then it was over – or at least, a part of it was over. The shepherds returned – to their fields, one assumes – and they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Take note: As they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. The experience was already past. They might have lived their entire lives glorifying and praising God for the memory of that one experience, the night when they saw the world with the lights in it, lit up by the child with the lights in his eyes.
Annie Dillard writes that after that first vision,
“I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”
Well. That’s Annie Dillard’s experience of the incarnation. Maybe yours is different. I expect all of us have different paths to the manger, to the feeding trough, to the table for the creatures of the earth. The Spirit of the Lord moves in mysterious ways.
But every once in a while, she lights up the night. And on one night, many years ago, she lit up the world through the birth of a child, and struck humanity like a bell, gathering the unlikely together and making them ring.
We are still ringing, from mountain to mountain, and everywhere in between.