Luke’s wonderful Christmas story: angels, shepherds, thin places, and bed sheets

Scripture: Luke 1: 26-38 and 2: 1-20

At our family service this afternoon, I began by asking the children some questions (they had just watched a video of the Gospel story). What happened on the first Christmas Eve – Jesus was born. Where did it happen? – In Bethlehem. Where did Mary put the baby to sleep? – In a manger. Why did she have to use a manger? – There was no room at the inn. Who came to see the baby? – Shepherds. How do you know all this? – It’s in the Bible.

Luke’s greatest hits

Tonight, we have heard what I think of as the two highlights of the Christmas story. The angel Gabriel announced the birth to Mary, the future mother of Jesus. Then the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, which I just described. It’s really only half true to say that we know this from the Bible. Of the four Gospel writers, only Luke describes these events. Apart from the visit of the Magi, or Three KIngs, as described by Matthew, the whole of our familiar Christmas story comes from Luke.

There is actually much more to Luke’s story than the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus. Luke gives a much more elaborate account. We hardly ever read most of it, even in church. For me, the Annunciation and the birth, rather like CD albums, “Favourite operatic arias” or “The Tragically Hip, their greatest hits”. Think of them as “Best of Luke.” So I would like to take a few moments to fill in more of what Luke tells us about Jesus’ origins and early life.  You can read it all in Luke Chapter 1 through 3: 22.

Zechariah, Elizabeth, Gabriel, and Mary

The story begins with a Temple priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth have not had any children and are getting on in years. While carrying out his priestly duties, Zechariah gets a visit from the angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells him that Elizabeth will bear a son. They are to name him John. Zechariah doesn’t believe Gabriel, and as a punishment he loses the power of speech until John’s birth. John will grow up to be John the Baptist. Next, Gabriel visits Mary as we read tonight. Mary, newly pregnant, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, now five months along. Therefore we realize that John and Jesus are related, and that they are almost the same age.

After Elizabeth has her baby, the relatives want to call him Zechariah after his father. However, the parents insist on calling him John, as the angel had told them. Zechariah then gives a speech that connects John (and therefore his cousin Jesus) with both the patriarch Abraham and the great King David. The speech also predicts John’s ministry of baptism thirty years in the future.

Now we come to the birth narrative. Mary has the baby and lays him in the manger. The angels sing ‘Peace on Earth’. The visiting shepherds, just ordinary people, are the first people to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ.

From the Birth to the Baptism in the River Jordan

Luke tells two more stories about the young Jesus. As an infant, his parents take him to the Temple.  There they meet a devout old man named Simeon. Simeon understands who Jesus really is, because he says that now he has seen the Messiah, he can die in peace. Later, when Jesus is twelve years old, his parents visit the Temple again. Jesus stays behind and seems to have got lost. When his parents go back to find him, he says that he had to be about his Father’s business. In other words, he himself now recognizes his divine ministry.

Finally, when Jesus is thirty years old, John baptizes people in the River Jordan. John proclaims that someone else, much greater than himself will be coming. John baptizes Jesus; his divine mission is authenticated by God because the heavenly voice says, “You are my son, with whom I am very pleased.” Thus Luke not only predicts who Jesus will be, but the following people then affirm his identity. The shepherds, ordinary people; Simeon, the devout Jew; Jesus himself; and finally the pronouncement by the heavenly voice.

The shepherds visit the infant Jesus

Let’s now go back to the ‘main business’ of this evening – the birth of Jesus and what happened next. Luke tells the story this way. Some shepherds are out in the hills because they need to defend their sheep from predators. It’s desert country, so I imagine that the night is cold and clear. Suddenly, they see an unearthly light, and an angel speaks. “Don’t be afraid. I have wonderful news. Tonight, the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem, the city of King David. You will find him there, lying in a manger. He will be wrapped in swaddling cloths.” Then the song of the multitude of angels erupts, “Peace on earth.” The shepherds rush off to Bethlehem. Everything is just as they have been told. They return to the hills, praising God, so I presume that they must have told everyone they met what they had seen.

Did it really happen that way?

Did it all happen exactly as Luke told it? We do not know and cannot know. But Luke made very clear to us that heaven and earth were in very close proximity that night. Was it real or did Luke use a metaphor, when he said that the shepherds heard an angel telling them where to go, and heaven rejoicing with the song of the angels, “Peace on earth”?

There is a Celtic expression for places and times that seem to be unusually holy. They are called ‘thin’ places and times, because the earthly and the heavenly realms seem to be in close proximity. Luke has explained that this particular moment was so thin that heaven and earth must have touched each other.

Angels, thin places, and bedsheets

In an article a couple of months back, Michael Burslem, who is a parishioner at St. George’s Guelph, likened the heavenly and earthly realms to two sheets. He wasn’t writing specifically about Christmas Eve, but I liked his metaphor.

I – and this is me thinking – can see this metaphor as being like a pair of bed sheets. Much of the time the sheets are all rumpled, because we human beings mess up God’s plans for the world. But when the bed is newly made, the sheets lie flat together, so close that they actually contact each other. That’s the way the heavenly top sheet and the earthly bottom sheet were on that first Christmas Eve. Heaven and earth touched each other. Say it how you will – sheets in contact, thin places, or heaven breaking into our world so that the shepherds could hear the angels singing. It doesn’t matter. They are all inadequate attempts to say what happened.

Just keep wondering

So let me finish tonight the way that I have finished on many other Christmas Eves. Luke’s story is wonderful, meaning it fills us with wonder. So set aside your logical way of thinking. It won’t work tonight. Just walk to Bethlehem in your imagination and in your heart. Peek inside the stable. It’s very dark. But if you let your eyes adjust, you will be able to see the baby lying in the manger, next to his parents. Creep closer, quietly. You don’t want to frighten him. Look into his eyes. He can’t yet focus on you. But if you hold your gaze and wait, you will see the face of God looking back at you. A blessed and holy Christmas to you all!