The little Palestinian town of Beit Sahour is believed to sit atop the site where “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). Two churches claim to mark the spot of the angelic visitation.
But that’s just geography. This year I find myself less interested in the where of the fields because I’m more concerned with the when—the “at night” Luke briefly mentions.
The shepherds’ experience of darkness, both before and after their trip to the manger, holds special relevance for a Christmas arriving in the waning hours of 2020.
It’s been a pretty dark year. In the midst of already dire global conditions, the pandemic has plunged the world into what has seemed like an endless metaphorical nighttime.
It calls to mind when God brought the plague of darkness on Egypt, describing it to Moses as “darkness that can be felt” (Ex. 10:21). Once again, something palpable seems to have blanketed the world with all the unknowns, fears, and uncertainties nightfall brings. And as with most nights, we’re weary.
Merry Christmas, right?
Maybe the sentiment is not as incongruous as it feels. Maybe the season of joy is right at home in these conditions. “Advent always begins in the dark,” writes Fleming Rutledge.
For most of my years as a pastor, it has felt as though I’ve been shepherding at night, in the dark. No grand visions. No mapped-out growth strategy. I’ve prayed regularly for the light-up-the-sky kind of illumination realized by the Bethlehem shepherds. Just show me what to do, God, and I’ll do it. But my eyes have never been able to focus very far ahead.
That blindness became amplified by all that happened this year, like moving from twilight to midnight. Suddenly, I couldn’t see two steps in front of me. Staring into a camera week after week to deliver sermons, I couldn’t even see the flock, let alone the fields. Each new crisis in the world begged for a response I didn’t have. Big decisions and future planning became increasingly difficult, even as the need for them intensified.
The Old Testament book of Joel recounts a disastrous pestilence that wreaked havoc on God’s people. It brought widespread, horrific destruction. In reflecting on those events, Eugene Peterson observed, “There is a sense in which catastrophe doesn’t introduce anything new into our lives. It simply exposes the moral or spiritual reality that already exists but was hidden beneath an overlay of routine, self-preoccupation, and business as usual.”
The virus we’re facing may be novel, but the distress we’re experiencing is not. The preexisting darkness has simply grown thicker, making it more difficult to move.
But immobility isn’t always bad. When we can’t go anywhere, we’re left with sitting and waiting. And if we’re still for any length of time, we are more likely to notice what we would have missed otherwise.
Such as those two little words: “at night.”
“The shepherds returned,” Luke says, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20).
After everything they saw, they returned to the place they had started. In other words, they went back to that dark night.
All the brilliant, phosphorescent glory that lit up the entire sky did not end their experience of darkness. It was still there, waiting for them on the far side of the manger.
And that was to be expected. The angels hadn’t visited the shepherds to bring a miraculous halt to the rotation of the earth. They weren’t there to banish the night. Glory displayed for one purpose only: to provide the irresistible prompt to seek out Jesus. A flash of light showed the way to a greater light.
This, I have realized, is where I have often gotten hung up. I’ve been praying for a light that will eradicate the dark altogether and get me out of it. I’m looking—aching, at times—for clear, confident revelation that will end my confusion for good. I’ve been waiting for God to solve life for me.
But honestly, that’s more escapism than seeking God’s leading. And that’s not why he gives us light. He shines his beams of revelation to show us the path to Jesus, the light of the world.
We can learn to reframe our questions from “Lord, when will this darkness be over?” to “What is pointing me toward Christ?” As we do, we may find there is significantly more light in the room than we realized.
The angel’s message began with the reassurance that there was no need to be afraid because God’s rescue plan was in motion. It encompassed everything (offering joy for all people) and missed nothing (down to the details of how Jesus was bundled). God’s grasp of history and his utter command of the situation were fully evident.
The birth of Christ happened before the angels arrived, during the unlit hours of the night. The angelic announcement may have shattered the gloom with its brightness, but the miraculous arrival of Jesus occurred much like his resurrection: “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).
God is at work before we see him, absolutely unhindered. Our blindness isn’t his. “Even the darkness will not be dark to you,” the psalmist says (Ps. 139:12). He is not intimidated by all the unknowns of night that stop us in our tracks.
That first Christmas night created a watershed between epochs of darkness. There is pre-manger darkness and post-manger darkness.
Up until then, no one had ever lived in a world where the Son of God had dwelt among us as a fellow human being. Prior to the Incarnation, God had not fully revealed himself.
As the shepherds sat out in those fields, they were living in a world that could see no more than the outlines of God’s redemption plan. The veil could not be pierced.
But then, as Isaiah predicted, a light dawned on the people sitting in that pre-manger darkness. The birth of Christ changed everything. Suddenly, there was physical evidence of spiritual action. The hopes of endless ages were no longer abstract wishes. They were about to be fulfilled within the lifespan of a real live person.
It was the reality of Jesus—not the light of the angels—that stuck with the shepherds. As glorious as the heavenly choir had looked and sounded out in the field, it paled in comparison to the staggering truth the Christ child embodied.
Even as they were filled with wonder, the shepherds were given only the smallest glimpse of what was coming. Their understanding was limited to whatever promise they could imagine from a newborn baby. They didn’t know he would literally calm storms. They didn’t see him heal the sick or raise the dead or feed the crowds. They knew nothing of the Cross, let alone the Resurrection. God didn’t show them the Holy Spirit’s work at Pentecost, the inclusion of the nations, or how the gospel would advance tirelessly around the globe for the next 2,000 years. Yet the shepherds had enough light from that encounter to march back into their dark night rejoicing and praising God.
Sometimes we act as though what we’re going through is pre-manger darkness. When God seems silent, when we are bewildered by our inability to figure out a way forward, we make up a greater void than is truly there. Because in truth, a staggering amount of light has been shed on Jesus since the shepherds. History continues to provide both evidence and explanation.
I don’t mean to minimize or trivialize anyone’s “dark night of the soul.” When you’re in one, it’s painful and disorienting, often to the point of despair. But as believers, our darkness is always post-manger. Our darkness is forever against the backdrop of the light of Christ. What has been shown of him cannot be unrevealed.
And Jesus never leaves our side through each season of darkness. It is those who love us best who stay with us through our worst. You know love is real when it shows up in the middle of the night.
Someday, morning will come. Night never lasts forever. In the meantime, we have Immanuel, God right here with us. And that means we can return to the dark again and again, rejoicing and praising God for the light we have and the one who loves us enough to remain.
We can heed the angel’s call to not be afraid of this present darkness or any other. The one born to us that night is still good news of great joy.
Jeff Peabody is a writer and lead pastor of New Day Church in Northeast Tacoma, Washington.
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