Shepherds Keeping Watch
by Rev. Christopher R.J. Smith
This is the message that was given to the shepherds on the night of the Lord's birth. They heard it while they "were keeping watch over their flock by night."
Keeping watch - keeping watch even by night - what a wonderful picture of faithfulness that gives us! It is easy to keep watch for dangers during the day when you can see well. But at night it is harder to be watchful, to be faithful, especially as there is the added danger of falling asleep on the job.
Like all men, the shepherds had a responsibility. But unlike other men, they were keeping watch over their responsibility. We all have responsibilities. Some are easy to manage, like keeping watch during the day. But the responsibilities represented by keeping watch at night are those that do not give us any delight and therefore are more likely to be shirked. In this case we can easily become like a sentry who is found fast asleep during the night-watch, when the enemy attacks.
Be awake! Be watchful, the Lord says, or we will be found unprotected. The enemy, the power of the hells, can be resisted only by keeping watch like the shepherds. It was on these same hills around Bethlehem, the City of David, that David himself, the shepherd boy, kept watch and killed a lion and a bear with his own hands. This was told to prove to King Saul that David could kill Goliath because the Lord was with him and would give him the necessary strength.
The Lord is with those who keep watch, and it is to such people that He makes Himself known. "And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them." All at once, in the darkness, the brightness of an angel appeared to the shepherds. Their spiritual eyes were opened, and they saw and heard a single angel telling them the Messiah had come.
It was a simple message: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who 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."
An angel stands for what is true, and truth is something that can be opened to infinity, to see other truths. The shepherds accepted the single and simple truth of the Lord's birth as announced by that one angel. And then it is said: "Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God."
The spiritual eyes of the shepherds were opened further to see a great army of angels, perhaps the whole society in heaven from which came the angel Gabriel. First there was a single angel and then a multitude of the heavenly host.
What happens when we take one single truth and work with it? The newcomer to the Heavenly Doctrines may find one single truth that he can accept, that excites him, while everything else he doubts, he cannot accept. Perhaps he accepts just the truth of conjugial love, or life after death, or the doctrine of use, or perhaps the clear teaching that God is one.
Let it be something that is simple and excites him so that he reads about it. He loves to study all he can about that one single truth. "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God." Is this not the experience of the man who becomes a New Church man? At first he gets one idea from the Writings. But suddenly there follow many other things. He sees a vision of unlimited truths that all apply to his life.
One can look at the Word and see nothing but night, darkness. But in that darkness there are truths in dazzling brightness and in such number that they can never be counted. When something of their presence is seen, when we finally see for ourselves that there are countless truths in the Word, we can hear them all declaring the same thing: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
What does this earth want more than peace and the comforts of life for all? But what peace is there? Since the time the shepherds heard that message, there have probably been very few years, if any at all, in which there has been no war somewhere on this earth.
How could those angels have said "on earth peace, good will toward men"? Notice, however, what they said first: "Glory to God in the highest." Only when the worship of God comes first can there be peace. And consider what glory is given to God today.
At Christmas we celebrate the Lord's coming into the world, and yet in the so-called Christian world God is hardly known, let alone worshipped. How many people in this city will attend church for Christmas, let alone make attending church a regular and important part of their lives? It would appear that far more attention is given to the myth of Santa Claus. Profit-minded people have been quick to cash in on this idea, encouraging the concept of Christmas as a holiday of mere merrymaking and indulgence.
As long as this attitude lasts, there can never be peace and still less any good will among men. Yet, there may be times of truce and good relations between families, cities, and even countries. But greed and selfishness will constantly rise up wherever there is no glory given to God.
Indeed, Herod the King is still alive. Do not look for him in the world, however, complaining about the lack of peace and good will there. Look for the tyrant Herod in yourself, for Herod represents the loves of your unregenerate self - all your evils.
Herod was the king in Jerusalem when the Lord was born, and his character is an excellent picture of evil. He had his wife and three of his sons murdered merely because he thought they threatened his throne. For the same reason he had many leading men of the city murdered. On the occasion of his own death, he left an order that men of high rank in the town were to be murdered to ensure that there would be mourning at the time of his death, even though the mourning obviously would not be for Herod.
When the wise men came asking, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?" Herod said with his lips that he also wanted to worship the Child, but in his heart he had already plotted murder. The full ugliness and horror of our unregenerate self showed itself in Herod when he ordered the mass killing of all the boys in Bethlehem under two years old.
Yes, find Herod in yourself and flee from him. This is the meaning of repentance, which any man can do. The wise men obeyed the angel's warning and defeated Herod's cunning by departing into their own country another way - avoiding Jerusalem and the court of Herod. Joseph was able to take Mary and the Child and flee into Egypt until the death of Herod.
All men can learn from the Word what evil is. All men can examine themselves to discover their own evils. All men can repent by shunning any evil they have discovered in themselves. They can simply stop doing it. But no man can remove the delight of evil.
This is the difference between the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of the Lord. The work of John represents repentance. He called men to pay attention to their evils and to change their ways. This is repentance. This we can do. And therefore John had a human father like every man. But the Lord was born of a virgin.
The Lord's birth represents regeneration, which is something only He can do for us. If we repent, if we co-operate with the Lord by shunning our evils, then He will remove the delight that we had felt in those evils and give us a new delight that comes from heaven. He gives us a new will, a new heart that loves good and not evil.
This is the Divine work of salvation that only the Lord can perform. And this is shown in the fact that He Himself had no human father. He was born of a virgin. He was the Father of Himself.
Here is the corner-stone of Christianity. He who does not believe in the Virgin Birth, says that the father of Jesus Christ was Joseph. It would follow then that Jesus was a great but still just an ordinary man, who began His existence at the time of conception. Such an idea can never allow the belief and worship of Jesus as the God of all the universe, who is, and who was, and who is to come. Then God Himself would remain hidden, invisible.
The man however who has accepted the Heavenly Doctrines for what they say has been given a great privilege. For in these Writings the Lord Jesus Christ make Himself known in such a way that no person in the whole world could be better known. And the man who sees this will show the same reverence as the shepherds, because he has not only been to see, but now knows in his heart the truth of this statement: "Knowledge of the Lord surpasses in excellence all other knowledges in the church, and even in heaven." (TCR 8)
He has seen the Lord wrapped in swaddling clothes - the one or two simple truths that first introduced him to the Lord as if He were a mere baby. But then he was led further to see the glory of God. And when this glory was seen, how could he possibly hold back from giving his whole mind, his whole life to be cleansed by Him, our Saviour?
John said: "Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world." (John 1: 29) And what did the angels say? "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."
Our Saviour is still very much present with us today and always. He says, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." (Rev. 3: 20) How sad, how tragic it would be if it were discovered that we did indeed hear the repeated knocking of the Lord, but He was turned away for want of room in the inn.
Shall we not therefore take care to keep watch over our spiritual life? Shall we not open the door for our Saviour to enter and become Emanuel, God with us? Shall we not let Him unceasingly affect our lives and thus the life of our community? Indeed, let us keep watch that we may become a light to those in the world around, hastening the day when there will be peace on earth and good will among all men..
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WHY THE NAME, "LORD," INSTEAD OF "JEHOVAH"
Among the hidden reasons of their calling Jehovah "the Lord," were the following. If at that time it had been said that the Lord was the Jehovah so often named in the Old Testament, men would not have accepted it, for they would not have believed it; and moreover the Lord did not become Jehovah as to the Human ... until He had completely united the Divine Essence to the Human Essence, and the Human to the Divine. The full unition was accomplished after the last temptation, which was that of the cross; and for this reason, after the resurrection the disciples always called Him "the Lord;" and Thomas said, "My Lord and my God." And because the Lord was the Jehovah so often named in the Old Testament, He therefore also said to His disciples, "Ye call Me Master and Lord, and ye say well, for I am" (John 13: 13, 14, 16); and these words signify that He was Jehovah God; for He is here called "Lord" as to good, and "Master" as to truth. That the Lord was Jehovah is also meant by the words of the angel to the shepherds, "Unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2: 11). He is called "Christ" as the Messiah, the Anointed King; and "Lord" as JEHOVAH; "Christ" in respect to truth, and "Lord" in respect to good. (Arcana Coelestia 2921: 6).
-New Church Life 1979;99:529-533