When You Least Expect It
In 1960 a new television show appeared on CBS. The idea, as with so many other TV shows of the time, had come from a radio program called, The Candid Microphone. The premise was that unsuspecting people were put in unusual situations and hidden cameras were recording their reactions.
Candid Camera became a staple of Sunday nights. One of my personal favorites was the series of spots where one of the show’s writers, Fannie Flagg, drove her car into a gas station. She asked the unsuspecting attendant to change the air in her car’s tires because she was sure that after 4,000 miles it was getting stale. What seems most absurd about that situation now, is the idea that you could find a series of gas stations with attendants!
I remember lots of laughter in our home over that show. Every Sunday night Allen Funt would sign off with the show’s signature line, “Don’t be surprised if sometime, somewhere, someplace when you least expect it, someone steps up to you and says, smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”
Perhaps that is why the show struck a chord with so many people. We all sense that it is true that things happen; sometimes very important things happen when we least expect it. That is exactly what we will read about today in our scripture passage from the Gospel of Luke.
Turn with me to Luke 2:8-20. It is probably my favorite passage about the events that took place in Bethlehem so long ago.
LK 2:8 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 of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
LK 2:13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
LK 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
LK 2:15 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.”
LK 2:16 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. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.
Like the unsuspecting subjects of a Candid Camera episode these shepherds had no idea what was about to happen when they went out into the field. They had no idea that over 2,000 years later we would be reading of the night they were witness to the surprise announcement from the heavenly host.
There are a number of collections of Jewish oral tradition but the most significant of them is called the “Talmud” (or the teaching) and its origins can be traced to about 200 years after Christ. Because of that, it is an excellent window into Jewish interpretation of the law in Jesus’ day. The Talmud says that shepherds should not be allowed to give testimony in a court of law. In fact, it says that a person need not give assistance to “the heathen or to shepherds.”
These men could not attend to scheduled temple activities because of their need to be in the field. Perhaps because of this, they were held in low esteem by the Jewish leadership of the time. It was an incredibly mundane job! They simply sat there all night long trying to keep an eye on a flock of sleeping sheep in whatever moonlight or starlight was available to them.
We know some things about shepherds from David’s description. He was the youngest and therefore least significant brother in his family, so the job of watching the sheep fell to him. In Isaiah 17, David told Saul that his nights of shepherding included fights with lions and bears who were attacking the sheep. We know that the job of being a shepherd was held in low esteem. The job paid very little and it included hours and hours of boredom. But it was boredom that was punctuated by moments of sheer terror!
That was the situation for the men in the hills outside Bethlehem on the night that Jesus was born. The poorest and lowest of society would be the first to hear the news. And it was news that would turn everything upside-down!
The glory of the Lord shone around them. What is this “glory of the Lord” that Luke speaks of? The word “shone” tells us it was light. On a dark and silent night that alone would have been terrifying. But there was so much more to it than simply light! This is “the glory of the Lord;” shekinah glory! It is what Moses called the “cloud” of his presence and it literally means the “dwelling of God.”
In 2nd Chronicles 7:1-3 we read that the priests could not enter the temple because the “glory of the Lord” filled it and it is described as “fire coming down.” It is the indwelling presence of God and it was both a spiritual manifestation and a physical form. The universal response to shekinah glory also takes two forms; fear and worship.
That is exactly how the shepherds responded. They were justly terrified. The “glory of the Lord” showed itself in an angel who promptly announced the beginning of a chain of events that would change the world more profoundly than any other, before or since!
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Then this unbelievable event got even bigger as the angel was joined by a great crowd of spiritual beings all of them worshipping and giving glory to God. And, as quickly as it began, it was over.
Can you picture this? The near silence and total blackness of that night were totally shattered by this appearance and then, just as abruptly, it was dark and silent again. How did they respond? Did they think about how this news would be received by the world around them? Did it occur to them that people might think they were crazy? Did they realize that the political authorities would not see this as “good news?”
I am certain that all of these thoughts and more ran through their minds and perhaps their conversations. But what did they do about it? They “hurried” to find this family with such a remarkable baby. Then, they told everyone who would listen.
“…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.”
They went home glorifying and praising God. I am certain that they were never the same again just as the world was never the same again.
Luke wanted his reader to notice some important things about this event. First, he wanted to make the point that God’s announcement of the biggest news of all history came to the lowest of the society. The announcement to the shepherds and the conditions of Jesus’ birth state loud and clear that this royal birth was for all mankind not just the rich and powerful.
Secondly, and the point of what I have to say today, at moments of vast importance God can use ordinary people when they least expect it.
What that means, is that God can and will use you and I when it serves his purposes. You are not spiritually minded enough to carry God’s message? Perhaps you think you simply do not have the training to be God’s messenger. But God uses whomever he will to do the work of his kingdom. If the lowly shepherds were his choice on that Christmas night so long ago why would you think you are not qualified, today?
Christmas is coming! It will be here soon! How will you respond to the message that God’s Chosen One is in the world, “born to you?” The response God desires is the same as the one from the shepherds. Seek Jesus out! Bow down and worship, and then go tell everyone that will listen, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”