It was Richard Dawkins, of all people, who alerted me to an important subtext of Luke’s Gospel. It’s a a paragraph in his book bearing the marvellous title: Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder.
It’s those last three titular words which struck me. Here’s Dawkins: “There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worth while from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habitutation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.”
The “unfamiliar ways” in which Luke saw the world was a place shot through with the colour and magic of the presence of God. “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” (2 Chr 16:9)
God is watching for those who are watching for him.
Because of this, it’s important to read the story of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20 as a parable on the theme of how God invades lives and changes them forever. Time and again, Luke tells of ordinary people going about their business whose lives are changed forever by an encounter with God: Zechariah the workaday priest, putting in his shift at the temple; Gailean fishermen working on their nets; Matthew at his tax booth. The list seems endless.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them…”
We live at the very edge of wonder. Jodi Picoult wrote, in Handle with Care: “It never failed to amaze me how the most ordinary day could be catapulted into the extraordinary in the blink of an eye.”
And that’s Luke’s point: God created you not as an ordinary personality, but eminent, peculiar, and with a special assignment. And the first part of that assignment is a readiness for God to move.
Luke intends the readers to see the shepherds as representative of believers who are ready to listen; and humble enough to recognise the signs that God gives and to act on them. In the event, the “sign” seems quite low-key: “This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ but their obedience was not.
The point is not that you are invited but that you respond to the invitation.
“And the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified…. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ “
The invitation is to move past the fear of the unknown into peace and favour. How do you do it? Through obedience. “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…” The business of hurrying is a vital step in responding to God!
The next step was witness: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child….”
And afterwards, they return to their “normal lives.” Life has to go on after all. Bills have to be paid, and normal service has to be resumed.
But there is a difference that lasts forever. “The shepherds returned…” Yes, of course they did. Where else would they go? But they were not the same men who had once been terrified. They returned ” glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”
What does it mean to where we live? It means that the ordinary is the place of the divine, where common sense meets mystery, and where logic “kisses the cheek of the inexplicable” (Tony Hendra).
Let’s recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.“For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”
It could be you. It might be today.