By Rev. Walter E. Orthwein
Our first lesson is from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 9-11:
O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!
Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:9-11) Amen.
And our second lesson is from the Gospel of Luke, the second chapter:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David); to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. (Luke 2:1-20) Amen.
Behold, I come as a thief; happy is he that is awake and keepeth his garments, signifies the Lord's coming, and then heaven to those who look to Him, and remain in a life according to His commandments, which are truths of the Word.... "To watch" signifies to live spiritually, that is, to be in truths and in a life according to them, and to look to the Lord, (158); and "to keep his garments" signifies to remain therein even to the end of life; for "garments" signify investing truths, (166, 212, 328), thus the Lord's commandments in the Word, for these are truths. (Apocalypse Revealed 705)
By "watching," in the Word, nothing else is signified; for he who learns truths and lives according to them, is like one who is awakened out of sleep and becomes watchful. But he who is not in truths, but only in worship, is like one who sleeps and dreams. Natural life, considered in itself, or without spiritual life, is nothing else but sleep; but natural life, in which there is spiritual life, is watchfulness; and this cannot be acquired otherwise than by truths, which are in their own light and in their own day, when man is in the life according to them. Such is signified by "watching" in the following passages:
Watch, for ye know not in what hour the Lord will come, (Matthew 24:42).
Here end our lessons. May the Lord add his blessing to the hearing of his word. Amen. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Father Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flock by night."
It is hard to imagine a more tranquil scene than this one. We've seen it pictured on countless Christmas cards- shepherds in a field at night watching over their sheep, somewhere among the gentle hills of Judea with the little town of Bethlehem in the distance. The weather in that part of the world is mild and the air is very clear, and of course there were no bright city lights in those days to compete with the stars, so the night sky must have been a glorious sight. And now, on this night, an even greater glory was about to appear in it. A beautiful and peaceful scene - but not entirely - for it was nighttime, and in the darkness fearful things might lurk. A wolf or a lion or a bear or even a man might come and carry the sheep away, so the shepherds stayed awake and watched.
It is no accident that the Lord was born at night, for the dark of night corresponds to the spiritual condition that prevailed in the church on earth at that time. Very little spiritual intelligence remained. The ancient prophecy had come to pass: "Behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people." A state of ignorance and fear prevailed. The light of truth had vanished except for small remnants from remote ages past which still shone in the minds of some, like stars in the night sky.
The stars in the sky mirror the stars in people's minds, that is, whatever knowledge is of spiritual truth they have to illuminate the darkness of natural life. The Writings tell us that communities of angels, because of their intelligence, appear in heaven like shining stars. The host of angels who appeared to the shepherds were angels who especially loved to tell of the Lord's advent, and it was that same angelic society that appeared to the wise men far to the east as a star.
Few on earth were interested in the angels' glad tidings, but even in earth's dark sky there were some stars. There were some who remained faithful, and with such people - with those who long for the light of truth in order to live well - the Lord preserves enough understanding for their faith to endure. Let us pray that we are among them. As the stars that shone in the night sky gave the shepherds enough light to watch over their sheep, so even small bits of truth from the Word can enable us to protect and preserve the goodness we have within us from the Lord.
Stars... their light is cool and distant and dim like some long remembered, half-forgotten things we once knew. But how beautiful the stars are! They gleam like gems spilled out on black velvet. They lend a serene friendliness to the night. They stir the imagination, inviting us to find patterns in them. They are a guide and comfort, especially for those who need them most - for sailors and travelers in the desert, for shepherds watching over their flock by night. So it is with the truths of faith when the sky of the mind is dark, even if amidst the distractions of this natural world they are only dimly remembered, their weak light is all the more beautiful and welcome.
As the stars are far from earth, so the truths of the Word seem remote and theoretical when we are in a very different state of life from that represented by these truths. For example, when we read in the Word about the great peace that prevails in heaven, that bit of information seems quite remote when there is little peace in our own lives. It is the same in regard to the joy of heaven, in regard to the delight the angels have in worshiping the Lord and many other things: conjugial love, contentment, and trust in divine providence, and all the various truths that make up angelic wisdom. We know these things and believe in them, but perhaps they represent an ideal to be wished for more than a present reality. There is a prophetic element in every truth, a promise of some good which can be attained. Every truth describes a condition of life which may come to pass for us. If it is a bad state, the truth about it is a warning. If good, the truth about it is a promise of a blessing yet to come. The prophecies concerning the Lord's birth were both a promise and a warning. They foretold great joy for those who would receive Him, and destruction for those who opposed Him. "For behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble, and the day that cometh shall burn them up. But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings." (Malachi 4:1-2)
And then, from the Gospel of Luke the words of old Simeon when the Lord was brought to the temple as an infant: "Behold this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
The story of the Lord's birth reminds us to be on watch lest we fall prey to the ravages of some evil desire or idea, and it reminds us also of the myriad blessings promised by His advent. "Look toward heaven and count the stars if you're able to number them," the Lord told Abraham, "so shall thy seed be." The stars stand for all the good and true things the Lord's presence brings. All these things, these joys of heavenly life, may not be a present reality in our lives, but it is good to know about them as things to hope for and look for and strive for. As stars relieve the darkness of the night, so in the night time of the soul, truths of faith from the Word provide hope and consolation.
As people look at the stars and find patterns in them- kings and queens, heroes and various animals- so we can find even in a few scattered truths of faith the meaning of life in a dark world. The more we know the better, but even a little knowledge from the Lord's Word is enough for us to find meaning in life if we will look.
Knowing things is different from perceiving the truth of them, but knowledge is primary. No one can perceive what he does not know and believe. It says in the Arcana Coelestia that we cannot be gifted with the faculty of perceiving the good of love and the truth of faith except by means of knowledges so as to know what they are and of what nature.
The difference between knowing and perceiving is the difference between a star and a sun. We do not want our belief in the Lord to remain a distant star but to grow until we sense His presence with us as the very sun of heaven, rising "with healing in His wings", as it says in Malachi - warm, and radiating love and life. We want the Lord's advent to be not just a remote historical fact but a present and living reality in our own lives that affects us. We want it to be something we not only know about, but something we see to be true and feel to be true. This is real knowing as opposed to mere knowledge.
"And lo the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them."
The stars and the sky coalesced into one brilliant light from which came a living human voice, and then a whole chorus of voices, proclaiming the most joyous news that the Lord had been born. What can we do to prepare ourselves to see the glory of the Lord shining around about us, and to receive these good tidings? The story of the shepherds contains the answer. Notice what they were doing: they were keeping watch over their sheep. In other words, very simply, they were engaged in the performance of their use in life. They were at work. Our work - our use in life - includes many things, but the most essential of all is the work of spiritual growth and development - the work of regeneration.
It is really the Lord Himself, the good Shepherd, who does this, but we must cooperate by acquiring from Him the means by which He does it - that is spiritual truths. The reason the Lord works this way is that it preserves our own freedom and rationality, the very capacities that make us human. We can and must freely choose to use our minds to this purpose.
A shepherd, spiritually, is one who teaches the truth and by it leads to the good of life. So to be faithful shepherds, we need to learn truths from the Word so we will be able to identify what is good and what is not, and effectively nurture the one and get rid of the other.
The shepherds were keeping watch. Because of the evils in our natural heredity and in the world around us, we too must keep watch. That is, we must monitor the state of our lives and protect and nourish the good affections we have from the Lord. The shepherds watching over their sheep picture a regenerate person watching over and preserving the remains of innocence in himself. To "watch", the Writings explain, signifies to live spiritually - that is to be in truths and in a life according to them, and to look to the Lord. But we have to be careful to avoid letting such phrases as "to live spiritually" and "look to the lord" become mere clichés. To live spiritually means to give spiritual things priority and not just live for natural satisfaction. It means to cultivate an appreciation for the things of eternal life - to think about those things, reflect on them, and learn to value them and find comfort in them, and to be closer to them than all the external things in this world. To look to the Lord means to study the Word and pray for the Lord's help and guidance. We need to think about what these things mean.
To be watchful is to learn the things the Lord has revealed to us, think about them, and sincerely try to live by them. This involves a certain amount of self-reflection, watching over the states of your life, being alert to dangerous influences. And, it involves protecting and nourishing whatever is good and true in us. This is something each of us, individually, needs to think about - how to do this - what exactly and specifically it means in our own life - but to watch over and nurture and protect whatever good we have from the Lord because this is our hope.
May our celebration of the Lord's birth this year and every year serve to awaken the good and innocent affections the Lord has preserved, and watches over in each of us. May it strengthen our resolve to be faithful shepherds, responding with wonder and gratitude and great joy to the good news from heaven.
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord". Amen
Now, unto the one only God Jesus Christ our Lord be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.