It was just an ordinary night. The stars bright pinpoints of light in the dark sky. Tiny sparks shooting up from the campfire then dissolving into the darkness. The wood-smoke drifting around in the breeze. Now and then we could hear the odd cough of a sheep, but apart from that the hills were silent.

 We were relaxing after a long day with the sheep. Having a good old yarn like we usually did before we dropped off to sleep. We always enjoyed telling stories, you see. There was quite a bit of rivalry among us. We all wanted to think that our story was the best - the most frightening, the most adventurous, the most unbelievable. You know how it is.

But that night ... That night, something happened that eclipsed all of our stories. It made them all seem weak and insignificant. Hardly worth telling. And it happened to all of us. After that night, instead of telling our stories, we could only talk about that story.

All of a sudden, the darkness of that night changed to brilliant light. The stars became invisible, the campfire nothing at all. They were overpowered, totally hidden, by the intense brightness. And us? Well, we were downright scared to death. We were dead certain it was the end of us. We might be only shepherds, but even we knew enough of the Scripture to know that this brilliant, blazing radiance had something to do with God. That’s how it is – God and light always go together. And even we knew that no sinner can survive an encounter with God. So, in that instant, when the whole night filled with light, we totally panicked.

Then the angel spoke. And the very first thing he said was ‘Do not be afraid!’

Do not be afraid.

It seemed, at that moment, a ridiculous, thoughtless thing to say. How could we not be afraid when the glory of God was shining all around us? How could we not be afraid when we, sinners that we are, were in the presence of the holy God? It did not occur to us, at that moment, that there was anything that could save us.

Then, above the pounding of our hearts, we heard the angel’s words: ‘I bring you good news of great joy’ ... ‘Today ... a Saviour has been born ...’

There we were, trapped in our sin and our fear, wanting to run, wanting to hide, but with nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide from this all-encompassing light, nowhere to escape from this omnipresent God, this all-knowing God, this holy God.

But these words of the angel – strong, confident, compassionate words – arrested us.

Good news. Faced with the reality of our sin and its dire judgement, we certainly needed good news. But how could there be any good news for us?

Great joy. Filled with overwhelming fear, trembling in sheer panic, we certainly would welcome joy, any joy at all. But what could possibly remove our valid fear and replace it with joy? We were sinners. God is holy. Joy in his presence was impossible, and we knew it.

A Saviour has been born today. That’s what we needed, a Saviour. But it sounded too good to be true. And you know the saying – if it sounds too good to be true it is too good to be true. We’d been disappointed too often in life to believe such a promise.

The angel must have understood our despair and disbelief. To convince us that what he said was true, he gave us a sign: that we would find this new-born Saviour wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Now we know that mothers don’t usually put their new-borns in mangers, so that certainly would be a powerful sign.

But before we had time to think that through, suddenly the whole sky was filled with angels. Singing. Never before or after had we heard such singing. Singing about the glory of God. Singing about peace between God and humans.

Then the night returned to normal – stars in the dark sky, the firelight flickering away, the smoke drifting around, and now and then the cough of a sheep.

But it wasn’t normal. Nothing would ever again be ‘normal’. Not in our hearts and minds. You see, we went to Bethlehem and checked it out. And it was just as the angel had said: a new-born baby in a manger.

The Saviour.

Our fear and despair vanished. Peace flooded our minds and joy filled our hearts. If that angel choir had returned we would have stood up and joined them singing praises to God. I don’t think we could ever sing like they sang, but one thing I do know is this: their joy and their praise could never be as great as ours! They have never known the difference between fear of God and peace with God. But we do. Because of this Saviour.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2018