December 23, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
On that night so long ago when Jesus was born, there were shepherds on the hills overlooking Bethlehem. That night, a group of ragged men tried to keep warm and tried to stay awake as they listened to the wind to discern if there was anything out there that might harm the sheep. In other words, they were working. Shepherding wasn’t a prestigious job — their neighbors often turned away to avoid the smell of sheep dung that clung stubbornly to their robes — but at least it was work and it kept food on their families’ tables. And no matter what questions we may have about the historical nature of the nativity story, we know that this part of it at least is without question absolutely factual because no matter how or where Jesus was born into the world, we can be assured that on the night he was born there were shepherds on the hills over Bethlehem doing their job, just as assuredly as there were inn keepers hosting weary travelers and cattle lowing in their stables. There were also without question others who never made it into the story but who were there nonetheless going about their business as they did every day: bakers stirring the coals to make the days’ bread, and soldiers changing guard, and homeless beggars sleeping in back alleys, and mothers sitting up with sick children. In verse 8 of the second chapter of the gospel of Luke, we have words that succinctly summarize the human experience: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Throughout human history, whether in first century Judea or 21st century America, to be human is to scrabble for a living, to care for one’s family, to chat with friends, to eat, to sleep, to laugh, to weep, and do what has to be done to get through another day. And so, on the night when Jesus was born into the world, a night that we consider so sacred that we rehearse it every year, most of the people of Judea would write in their diaries of that day, “Same old same old.”
In verse 8 of chapter 2, Luke describes the mundane human experience but then in verse 9, the gospel describes the possibility of something more; something so powerful and transforming that the shepherds initially don’t even know what to do with it.
“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
That night, Luke says, the veil between heaven and earth lifted and the shepherds’ mundane world was transformed. In that moment, the boundary between the seen world and the unseen world became soft and permeable and instead of seeing only bare cold hills, the shepherds’ eyes were filled with light. Instead of hearing only the bleating of sheep, the shepherds’ ears were filled with singing. Instead of drowning in a sleepy stupor, the shepherds’ hearts were filled with glory. The shepherds had no idea what was happening to them but they knew it was powerful and extraordinary as in “extra-ordinary,” something that does not happen to a person in the every day ordinary way of things. If in verse 8, Luke describes the humdrum human experience, in verse 9, Luke shows us that there is more to the world than our senses tell us: God inhabits our world as well. God permeates every pore of rock and sky and sea, and fills the earth with glory. By announcing the birth of Jesus with this extraordinary display of divine presence, Luke prepares his readers for the message that is to make up the bulk of the rest of his gospel: in Christ we will see the face of God and discover that this tedious work-a-day world is not all there is to experience. In this man who is to be born this sacred night, we will learn the nature of the divine and in him, we will each be able to stand in that place where heaven and earth meet.
The experience of the shepherds in verse 9 of Luke’s gospel is what theologians call a “numinous experience.” The dictionary defines a numinous experience as an experience that is “transcendent; [and suggests] the presence of divinity.” You have probably had numinous experiences: maybe it was when you gazed upon a particularly beautiful sight that moved you to a certainty that God was in that place, or maybe it was when you felt a sudden conviction of a divine presence showering grace upon your heart. We don’t really have adequate language for what is happening in those experiences though we try to describe them with phrases like, “I was filled with the Holy Spirit,” or “I felt I was standing on holy ground,” or “it was just a mystical moment.” Luke describes it as “the glory of the Lord” shining around us. The numinous experience occurs any time we recognize that the world is not made up of only inert molecules and organic chemical compounds but is grounded in a holy matrix that connects each of us to one another, to nature, and to the heart and hand of God.
The Christmas story, however, tells us that these numinous experiences are more than just a sudden awareness of divinity in our midst; they are experiences that call us to respond. The author John Taylor says that the word numinous comes from the Latin root ‘numen’ which can mean ‘to nod or to beckon,” and so the truly numinous experience demands our attention and beckons us to respond by allowing ourselves to be changed by them. After the angels were finished singing, the shepherds didn’t go back to their hard cold beds on that hillside — they went to Bethlehem to see what had taken place. And later, when that baby had grown to a man, he would continue to invite people to change their lives because of what they saw in him. Fishermen would leave their nets behind; tax collectors would make restitution to those they had defrauded; the blind would see, the lame would walk, and sometimes even the smug would reconsider their certainties and open their hearts to new ways of thinking. Those people looked upon the face of Christ and saw in him the meeting of heaven and earth, “God with us.” Glory shone round about them, and some trembled and fled while others jumped up with delight and followed.
At Christmas, we once again stand in the presence of the numinous, the meeting place of human and divine. Angels are singing and glory is streaming all about us, beckoning to us to open our hearts to God’s sacred grace. Let us, like the shepherds, go and see what has been declared to us this day, and open our lives to the fullness of Christ, Emmanuel, God with us.