The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God
for all the things they had heard and seen,
which were just as they had been told.
In preaching classes I tell my students that a good first step in writing a new sermon is to read the Bible text aloud but at a deliberately–almost at a ridiculously– slow pace. Somehow, forcing yourself to read exceedingly slowly helps details to pop out of the text that you’ve never noticed before on account of how you’ve always heard the text read.
Some years ago I was engaging in just such a pokey reading of Luke 2 in a desperate attempt to locate some new vista of insight for my Christmas sermon. Luke 2 is one of the most famous Bible stories in the world; you can even hear it being recited by Linus on the annual airing of the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” We’ve heard it read so many times that we seem to know instinctively which words to punch with emphasis and which phrases to read more quickly. But on this occasion, by forcing myself to slow down, I was struck by the phrase “the shepherds returned.”
Of course, we know those words but we mostly speed over them to get to the real punch of the verse: “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” On the typical reading of Luke 2:20 the emphasis falls on the image of those shepherds with open mouths and upraised hands as they praise God. But the first part of verse 20 is significant, too: the shepherds returned.
The shepherds did not stay forever frozen at the cradle of Christ the way we see them each year in crèches the world over on front lawns, in front of pious corporate offices, or in the parking lots of churches with living nativity scenes. No, the shepherds returned. They didn’t stay by the manger. They went back to the sheep. They went back to the cold hillsides where their ragged little tents were pitched so they could keep watch over those sheep the same as they had been doing all along.
The shepherds returned. They had seen the Christ of God. They had come to believe that something cosmic had happened in this particular birth and they even spread the news to anyone who bothered to listen (“all were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” v. 18). Yet despite all that, at the end of the day, the shepherds returned to their lives, to their occupation, to their bleating sheep.
Life continued. Sheep still needed shepherding. These shepherds still needed a way to put bread on the table. So they met the Christ of God and marveled at the angel-lit path that took them there. But when it was all said and done, they went back to all that was familiar. Yet they were changed. Presumably they were never quite the same. Even years later when one of them shivered beneath a threadbare blanket and prepared to breathe his last, he could still say to his friends, “Remember that night long ago? Remember the angels, the baby, the Savior of the world we met?”
The Christmas season does not last forever, and most of us are glad of it. We no more want to be frozen in time around our Christmas trees than the shepherds would have wanted to stay stuck forever in that Bethlehem stable. They had to go back to work, and so do we all. Once Advent and Christmas are over, once the tree is lying at the curb waiting to be picked up by the garbage truck and the decorations are back in their boxes in the attic, we all return to whatever it was we were doing before Christmas came along.
But those who go to the cradle of the King of kings return as changed people. So when we return to our “sheep” at school, in the office, at the grocery store, in the auto repair shop, or wherever it is we spend our days earning a living and using the gifts God has given us, we return as changed people. We can never forget the Savior whose arrival is a message of Good News that is for all people.
The shepherds returned, and so must we all once Christmas is past. But we do so thanking and glorifying God for what we have seen and heard, hoping that all who hear the story from us will be amazed even as we have been ourselves.