And the shepherds returned….
The shepherds returned!
There are moments in our life which we would like to prolong, to perpetuate, perhaps.
Relatively this is true even in our natural life. There are patches of sunshine flecking the prevailing gloom in our present world, that are swallowed up all too soon; moments of joy we would like to eternalize, but which quickly flit away.
How much more would we fain cling to those moments, when through the darkness of our night the eternal flashes into our soul; when in the midst of the toil and sorrow of things earthly we have a fleeting foretaste of the joy of heavenly things; when we seem to be face to face with the kingdom of heaven, and appear to see the promise, not far off, but within our reach!
Moments of revelation, when the heavens rend, and the New Jerusalem seems on the verge of descending!
Is not this what David meant when he sang that he longed to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life, to behold the beauty of the Lord perpetually, and to enquire in his temple? Was there not some such desire in Jacob’s soul, when he had seen in his dream the angel of God ascending and descending on the ladder, that: seemed to connect him directly with the heavenly house of God, when he made a stone of remembrance of the rock that had served as his headrest and called the name of that place Bethel? Was not a similar desire the subconscious motive of Peter’s impossible proposal to build three tabernacles on the Mount of Transfiguration? And was it not in the soul of the Magdalene to cling to the appearance of the risen Lord, and thus to have Him with her always?
But always there is the return!
The return to normal. Or is it not rather the return to the abnormal?
David cannot really dwell in the Lord’s house perpetually as yet: he must be satisfied that the Lord will hide him in his pavilion in a time of trouble. Jacob awakes to the cruel reality of resting his weary head on a hard rock, and of being on the way to Padan Aram to escape the wrath of his profane brother. The glory of the Mount of Transfiguration is not abiding, and the descent from that holy mountain is into the valley of suffering and death. And Mary of Magdala must return without her risen Lord.
And the shepherds returned!
Ah, what a night of joy and glory it had been! The fullness of time had arrived, and God had been mindful of His promise. Joseph and Mary, that the word of prophecy might be fulfilled, had been directed from Nazareth to the City of David. The little town already being overcrowded, they had found shelter for the night in a stable. And there the promise of God had been fulfilled as Mary brought forth her firstborn, wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, Jerusalem, the city of the great King, had been soundly asleep, quite unaware of the wonder of salvation that had been accomplished a few miles distant. But shepherds had been awake, keeping watch over their flock, and watching and praying for the Dawn. And, behold, the heavens rend, and out of the open heavens descends a messenger to them, bringing them the good tidings of great joy that unto them is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord. And he had suggested to them that they go and see this wonder of God’s grace, when he told them of the sign of the manger and the swaddling clothes. In silent wonder they had listened to the heavenly choir that had descended upon them and sung of God’s glory and of peace on earth.
Then they had gone to Bethlehem.
They had seen the Word that had come to pass.
They had believed, and worshipped.
And now they returned!
Yes, indeed, they returned from Bethlehem. But they returned, too, from much more: from a night crowded with the most glorious revelation of heavenly things; from a vision of angels that had spoken to them face to face of the realization of the promise, for which the saints had waited throughout the ages ; from being audience to a heavenly concert, such as never had been given on earth before; from seeing the salvation of Israel in the manger of Bethlehem, the Word come to pass.
They had stood before the very door of the kingdom of heaven; the door had been opened to them, and they had had a glimpse of the beauties within.
And now they returned!
O, indeed, they returned to the fields of Ephratah, and to the watch over their flock: had angels kept watch over them in the meantime?
They returned to their daily calling, yes, and to much more: to mere earthly things; to their place among a people of God in bondage; to the rule of a wicked king, carnal and cruel; to a people, whose scribes were indifferent in (their religious self-complacency, whose high priest was corrupt and served in the holy place for filthy lucre, and whose temple had been degraded info a den of robbers.
How far the kingdom of heaven seemed away!
And how near they had been!
The shepherds returned!
But of course!
Where would they go? And what else could they do?
The kingdom of heaven was not yet. It had not yet come. Only a beginning they had seen of the salvation of the Lord.
Heaven had opened only for a moment, not, indeed, to receive them, still less in order to swallow up death and all things earthly; only long enough to let the light of revelation shine upon the thing that had come to pass in Bethlehem: a brief flash of revelation! For this was, indeed, necessary: who would have recognized otherwise the great joy that had come to all the people, the Savior which is Christ the Lord, in that babe in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes?
Heaven had opened upon them, long enough, indeed, to let the heavenly song of the angels rebound through the night over the fields of Ephratah to the glory of God in the highest; long enough to direct their eager steps to Bethlehem, and to enable them to see the Word that had come to pass; in the light of the gospel that had been declared unto them. But then, heaven had closed again, the angels had withdrawn themselves behind the still curtain of the dark night, and the fields and their flocks had appeared as they were before: nothing had been changed! Heaven had not enveloped the earth. The kingdom of heaven had not come!
But of course! Where else would they go?
For even in Bethlehem, whither they had made their way in that night of all nights, they had not seen the kingdom of heaven in its power and victory over sin and death, and over all things earthly. Even there, the darkness had not been swallowed up of the light, heaven had not transformed the earth: the very opposite appeared to be the case, for the Son of God had come in the likeness of sinful flesh! In Bethlehem the Word does not cause us to dwell with Him, but He dwells with us; He does not take us into His glory, but His glory came to tabernacle in our shame! How, then could they stay in Bethlehem? For them there was no room even in the stable.
Only a beginning of the salvation of the Lord they had seen. And they had beheld that beginning, not, indeed, because there was any visible show of power and glory, but only because they bad looked upon what appeared the very contradiction of salvation with eyes of faith, illumined by the word of the gospel, preached to them by the angels. Yes, truly, they had seen Christ, the Lord, the Savior, but not in His power to save, neither in the glory of His anointing, still less in the power of His lordship. They had not seen Jesus crowned with glory and honor, neither had they seen all things subjected under His feet.
A helpless babe they had seen: the beginning of the promise!
And what a beginning!
For there was no room for this Word that had come to pass, for this realization of the promise of God, in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in the inn, in all the world: He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger!
Nor could they wait in Bethlehem for the full realization of this beginning of the promise. Much still had to happen before the promise was really fulfilled, before the great joy for all the people, of which the angel of the Lord had spoken to them, had been attained, before the salvation of the Lord had been accomplished through this Savior of Bethlehem, before this son of David is seated upon the throne of His glory, and this Christ has become the Lord. The glory of God, which was the theme of the angels’ song in the fields of Ephratah, was still hid in the likeness of sinful flesh, and a hard battle was still to be fought before the peace that was promised had descended on the earth.
No, indeed, they could not wait. The kingdom of heaven had not yet come.
This babe must grow up, and must tabernacle among us for a while. He must reveal the Father unto us, and become manifest as the Messiah. He must be despised and rejected of men, and be cast out, even out of this inn, and without swaddling clothes; be nailed to the accursed tree, and there shed His life blood for the sin of His own; must rise again on the third day, and be exalted as Christ, the Lord, at the right hand of the Most High in the heavens, crowned with glory and honor, and with all power in heaven and on earth.
And then He must be preached as the One in Whom God was reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Whom God will judge the world.
Then, finally, He will come again, with power to subdue all things unto Himself!
In that day heaven will open never to shut again!
The kingdom of heaven will then have come to remain!
And those that are privileged to witness the glory of that day, shall never have to return to the darkness of the present humiliation.
But for it the shepherds could not wait.
The Savior had come to them in the likeness of sinful flesh; by faith they had seen Him and worshipped; a glimpse they had of the realization of the promise.
Now they returned.
And the shepherds returned!
How becoming that they should do so!
For they had been witnesses of the great salvation the Lord had wrought for His people.
And having been ear-and-eye-witnesses, they must become mouth-witnesses of what they had heard and seen. Perhaps, they could have wished that they would never have to return to their flock and their lowly tasks, to this dark world and its suffering and sin and death, after they had tasted the goodness of the Lord, and seen a little of the glory of heavenly things, and had learned that the “day of the Lord’’ had come. Perhaps, they might fain have retreated behind the walls of some cloister, or into some lonely desert, cherishing their precious knowledge in their hearts, waiting for the fulfillment of the promise, for the rising of the Sun of righteousness.
But no, they could not so separate themselves and wait.
For the Word of God they had seen and heard was now in them. It had filled their hearts, their minds, their entire soul. It had become a power in them, which they could not possibly have resisted. They had heard the good tidings of great joy which would be to all the people, and now they must repeat them. They had seen the Word that had come to pass, and now they must witness of it. For this Word must reach out even to the ends of all the world!
And so the shepherds returned!
Yes, no doubt, they returned to their lowly everyday tasks, for even these must be performed until He come; and again they watched over their flock by night, with the dawn of a better day in their hearts.
But they had received a new calling, and they returned to fulfill it.
They made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child!
Living witnesses of the Word that had come to pass!
Witnesses to thousands that even as they waited for the realization of the promise.
And witnesses still!
The shepherds returned.
Yes, but with a new joy in their hearts, and with a new song upon their lips. For they returned “glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
The song of the angelic choir still resounded in their hearts as they returned, and now it had become their own!
Glory to God!
Peace on earth in men of good pleasure!
For they had believed!
The Word had been spoken unto them from heaven. And they had made haste to see the Word that had come to pass, which the Lord had made known unto them. And little enough they had seen: a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. What they saw might seem to be the very contradiction of the glorious gospel of joy and salvation and glory that had been proclaimed unto them by the angel of the Lord.
But they had believed the saying concerning this child!
And believing they rejoiced as they returned. No, really, they did not feel the disappointment of returning, for by faith they carried the joy of hope in their hearts; and already the great joy of which the angel had spoken caused their hearts to sing, and their lips to praise and glorify the Lord their God!
For after all, that Babe in the manger was the Wonder of God, the highest revelation of God’s power to save, His wisdom inscrutable, His love unfathomable, His mercy abounding!
Let us, too, return from Bethlehem, in faith, rejoicing.
Till we shall be with Him forever!
To return nevermore!